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The outer limits of vintage tech uncovered

The return of the Amiga and a rare sighting of an Acorn laptop are here in a look at the more unusual tech at the UK's first Vintage Computer Festival
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1 of 8 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

On 17 June, 2,000 fans of old technology descended on the Bletchley Park for the UK's first Vintage Computer Festival. The event showed that Bletchley still has many secrets — and so do its visitors.

This peculiar device tells the time through a mixture of cogs, wheels and 1940s telephone exchange switches called uniselectors. Although made to a very high standard, it contains no makers marks or identification and appears to be unique: nothing like it is known. The owner, Michael Saunby, has documented it in great detail, and is very keen to find out more.

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2 of 8 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

It wasn't just the exhibits and the presence of legacy journalists that made the Vintage Computer Festival reminiscent of the 1980s micro scene. A new Amiga — the X1000 — got launched.

Well, not really launched: it had been announced earlier in the year. Little details like the manufacturer of the PowerPC CPU, the price, performance and availability are still secret. However, it will have an 500 MHz XMOS co-processor — the reconfigurable hardware technology created by ex-Inmos designers — and run AmigaOS 4.

Why an XMOS co-processor? Why not, is the answer: it really is the '80s all over again. No final cases either, but here's a shot of the circuit board.

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3 of 8 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

The company behind the Amiga X1000 is A-EON, and co-founder Trevor Dickinson (second from right) is an enormous Commodore fan with over 150 machines in his personal collection.

Here we see him and others reacting to a question at the event. We didn't catch the exact wording of the query, but strongly suspect it involved a variant of the phrase: "Why on earth are you doing this?"

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4 of 8 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

Speaking of why, here's a piece of ancient technology that is as puzzling as anything Alan Turing helped decode.

Clive Sinclair's obsession with electric transport was arguably decades ahead of its time, but like so many Sinclair products the results were only too anachronistic. The C5 electric trike used a torpedo motor and lead-acid batteries to propel the punter fitfully through the streets at just below the level where other road users could see them — but any danger was minimised by the speed at which the battery went flat and the nylon gearbox turned into grated plastic.

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5 of 8 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

As well as the Commodores and Sinclairs of fond memory, a whole host of by-now forgotten companies tried to cash in on the home 8-bit micro boom. One was Dragon Data from Wales, who had a moderate success with the Dragon 32 — effectively a clone of the Tandy Color Computer.

Like everyone else, Dragon found the temptation to get into the business market was too strong, and like everyone else it came head to head with large American companies that wiped them out. Here, you can see half the world's known examples of the Dragon Professional, a dual-disk machine that got to 10 production-ready prototypes before the money ran out.

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6 of 8 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

Another company that fused engineering smarts with marketing fruitbattery was Acorn Computers, which never recovered from having a huge success with the BBC Micro. It thrashed about wildly with monstrous concepts such as the ABC — Acorn Business Computer — examples of which are exceedingly rare, although Bletchley Park has a couple in its back rooms.

Acorn did spawn the ARM chip, which became successful after it left the control of the company. Before that, it found itself making computers such as this 1992 Acorn A4, the company's only portable. The A4 had business packages in ROM, a 24MHz ARM 3 chip, a price tag twice that of PC-based equivalents, and no sales to speak of. Brought out in the same month as Apple's Newton, also ARM-based, the A4 is a dead-end branch of a successful evolutionary tree.

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7 of 8 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

The urge to 'be professional' led to many mutations. The PBS Executive IV is executive because it's built into a briefcase.

This, however, cannot disguise its true nature, which is a Spectrum+ with thermal printer and Microdrive storage: without a display, it is not entirely clear how it was supposed to work. Nothing else is known of this odd creation, hence the plaintive sign: if you know of (or even better are) the mystery PBS, let us know and we'll make a Spectrum collector a very happy man.

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8 of 8 Rupert Goodwins/ZDNet

It would have been possible to compose an entertaining photostory about the Vintage Computer Festival at Bletchley Park without including a single shot of a computer, purely by documenting the ferociously varied and quite extraordinary mixture of people who came along. Here, we see one of the very rare sightings outside San Francisco of an extreme geek garment, the Utility Kilt — essentially, a dress with pockets worn by those either very comfortable with their sexuality or quite unaware that it exists.

The only other tribe who have taken to this admittedly practical and well-ventilated form of male attire are those connected with subgenres of the Death Metal/Goth Punker scene. However, we feel confident that our mature, bespectacled model is not a camp follower of Alkaline Trio but more concerned with interrupt latencies on the S100 bus.

ZDNet UK says: Bravo, sir!

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