Trenton Computer Festival, the early days of computing, and me

TCF is unlike any other computer event in the world. It's special. It's unique. In a way, the birthplace of DIY-IT was the Trenton Computer Festival.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

The 37th annual Trenton Computer Festival will be held in Trenton, New Jersey tomorrow, March 10. If you haven't heard of TCF, you've missed one of the most influential computer events in computing history.

TCF also played a pivotal role in my growth in the computer industry.

Let's set the scene. It was 1976 and The New York Times was writing about TCF:

"The computer, once an awesome, mysterious, and incredibly expensive machine of superhuman powers, has become the hottest new toy of electronics hobbyists, some of whom predict that within a few years computers will be commonplace in American homes."

These were the early days. You may not realize it, but the early PC industry didn't start in California. Shortly after Ed Roberts introduced the Altair 8800 computer in 1975, and two little twerps named Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote something called Altair BASIC, the personal computer hobbyist business began to explode around something called the S-100 bus.

See also: I remember the Altair and it changed the world

This was long before there were App stores, long before companies told you what you could and couldn't run or read on your smartphone, long before there was Windows (or reinstalling Windows), and even long before there was much in the way of viruses or spam. It was certainly long before the Web and Amazon.com.

Pretty much, if you wanted a computer that wasn't an Apple or TRS-80, you built it from parts.

We still build some of our computers from parts, but back then you couldn't order your parts on the net, there were only a very few computer stores, and if you wanted to put together a PC, there were few places to go, few people to talk to, and certainly nowhere to browse and schmooze.

And then came Sol Libes. Sol started the Trenton Computer Festival, along with Allen Katz. Suddenly, there was somewhere for the hobbyists to go once a year or so to meet, in a giant, outdoor computer flea market. Sol was also a key player in the Amateur Computer Group of New Jersey. On top of that, Sol started S-100 Microsystems magazine, which provided technical information for S-100 aficionados.

Each of these were deeply formative for me.

I got my driver's license in 1977 and immediately petitioned my Dad to let me go down to ACGNJ meetings. I lived in Northern New Jersey, this was a pretty long drive, but my parents relented, and they let me go.

Most of the people I met at these meetings were early PC entrepreneurs. They made motherboards. They made systems. They made individual circuit boards. Some made software and games. They were defining the future of the PC business.

Two ads from Microsystems magazine back then. Note the 16K RAM card and the 26M drive for $4,495. Image courtesy the David Gewirtz media archive.

I liked the meetings, but what I liked most was the diner visit after the meetings (and not just for the pie). New Jersey is famous for its diners, which are (or, at least, were) open 24-hours. After the formal meetings, some of these founders and entrepreneurs would adjourn to a diner on Route 22 and talk shop. And they let me tag along.

At 17, these diner sessions gave me an exposure to a world I never before knew about. The adults from ACGNJ were kind and answered an amazing array of foolish 17-year-old boy questions. I learned about starting a business. I learned about manufacturing issues. I learned about industry politics. I soaked it all in.

I couldn't go to too many meetings, because I attended college in Massachusetts. But summers and breaks, I'd borrow my parents car, drive down to Central New Jersey and learn, observe, and ask away.

I was not a rich kid. Computers were expensive, especially to a kid who made a few bucks from a part-time job and had college to pay for. And yet, I wanted one of those machines. I wanted to build my own S-100 computer.

And that's where the Trenton Computer Festival came in. Back then, I didn't know of sales or marketing, or much about business at all. But I had energy to burn. For a few years (I think it was 1979 and 1980), I went down to TCF and horse-traded my way to a computer.

I started by wandering around all the tables, listening to people talk. I remember hearing one guy saying he wanted a such-and-such card and would pay handsomely for it. So I took off on a search. Somehow (the details are hazy after 30+ years) I managed to find the card for the guy and make a few bucks on the side. I proceeded to parlay that sale into another sale, horse-trading parts and cards throughout the show, until I wound up with most of the parts of an early S-100 computer.

Without TCF, I wouldn't have ever had that first computer. It probably also gave me my first experience with sales, a key skill for any future entrepreneur.

Sol was one of the people I met at TCF and sometime after meeting him, I wound up writing for S-100 Microsystems magazine. I wrote a bunch of articles for Sol, which I never could have done without my horse-traded, hand-built, hand-wired and boot-loader toggled-in S-100 machine that I built from parts scavenged at TCF.

The series I remember to this day was a two-issue, in-depth comparison of C compilers. Back then, C compilers ran on CP/M machines, which maxed out at 64K (not meg, not gig...kilobytes) of RAM. And in even that almost unbelievably small RAM footprint, C compilers were able to run.

In my first role as a product reviewer, I got my hands on all the CP/M C compilers that actually existed at the time, and compared them. That's also when I discovered that reviewers often get free software -- an amazing discovery for an always-broke 20-year-old college student. I also wrote about C as a language, what it was, and why it was important. C (and all its offspring, including C++, Objective C for making iOS apps, and C# for building .NET apps) has been a close, personal friend every since.

My first-ever cover article. Image courtesy the David Gewirtz media archive.

By the way, back when I was in college, we didn't have PCs. We used a DECsystem-10 machine, a giant time-sharing mini-computer. But because I was able to build my own machine, I was able to get a head start on what became the PC business. I used that machine to write a language and an operating system, which eventually resulted in my winning the Sigma Xi Research Award in Engineering.

But it wasn't the academic awards that opened doors and opened my eyes. Working with Sol on Microsystems magazine led to the opportunity to work at Creative Computing Magazine, the first personal computer magazine for the masses. Working at Creative Computing gave me the opportunity to briefly work for Ted Nelson, the guy who invented the concept of hypertext.

Back then, in the early 1980s, when I graduated college and moved to Silicon Valley, the industry was small. I was fortunate enough to meet Gary Kildall, who wrote CP/M. I had dinner with Bill Gates, who wrote Microsoft BASIC (that's what he was known for, back then). Steve Jobs was called me at a friend's house about a gig. And I worked for Dave Winer, who was instrumental in inventing outlining, RSS, podcasting, and the entire industry we now call blogging.

All of that, all of that, came about because of the warm tolerance of the guys at ACGNJ, the support of Sol Libes as my first regular editor, and the people who attended the Trenton Computer Festival and who gave spark to a hobby that soon became the foundation for the transformation of a world.

It should be noted that while I got my undergraduate degree in Computer Science, and definitely learned powerful technical skills in college, the university didn't really have a handle on what was becoming the PC business. They sent me on interviews with the CIA, NSA, Raytheon, and other defense contractors.

But I wanted to be part of the PC and microcomputer world. I'd had a taste of all that through S-100 Microsystems, Creative Computing, ACGNJ, and TCF, and so I moved to Silicon Valley, where I worked for a while, and then started my first business.

In a way, S-100 Microsystems was the great, great grandpappy of ZDNet. Microsystems was eventually bought by Ziff-Davis, along with Creative Computing. 20 years ago, Ziff-Davis started an online service called ZiffNet, which became ZDNet. Eventually, ZDNet was bought by CNET and CNET by CBS Interactive, which brings us to today. And, strangely enough, I've been writing on and off for all the various children and grandchildren of S-100 Microsystems, until I wound up here, at ZDNet.

I know this story is a long way from my introduction, telling you that the Trenton Computer Festival is tomorrow. But I want you to take away from this something very important.

TCF -- in 2012 as much as in 1982 -- is unlike any other computer event in the world. It's special. It's unique. And it can change your life if you're fortunate enough to be able to go, meet the people, and -- above all -- learn and dream.

So, if you happen to be near Central New Jersey, drive on over to the Trenton Computer Festival. You never know what you'll see or who you'll meet.

In a way, the birthplace of DIY-IT was the Trenton Computer Festival.

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