Once I passed the Pickleteria I knew that I had gone too far. After backtracking, I saw the sign for “Waistcoat, Want Not,” which I had missed the first time due to the obscuring graffito: “In Williamsburg, we say Ààwesk…ôt!” (Only a few stray horsehair fibers stuck in the graffitist’s paint marred the otherwise impeccable hand lettering.) As instructed, I knocked once, then twice, then three, and then five times. A peephole slid open in the door and a skeptical eye studied me.
“Fabian invited me,” I said. This was met by silence. “Ambrose,” I tried. “I meant to say that Ambrose invited me.” After a long moment there came what sounded like a resigned sigh, the peephole shut, and the door opened. An extraordinarily dapper young woman escorted me up a narrow flight of stairs.
At the top I spotted my never-dependable friend Fabian. “Nice monocle!” I offered.
“You made it!” he said. “That’s great! I’m sure you’ll have a good time!” I made some non-committal sound as I surveyed the expansive loft and the milling crowd of indescribably hip young people.
“This doesn’t look like most computer clubs I’ve been to,” I said.
“Oh, well, it’s Aulde Timey Nighte,” said Fabian, somehow pronouncing the alternate spellings. “Everyone’s supposed to bring something from the early days of computing.”
“Oh?” I asked, “What did you bring?” Fabian didn’t say anything. “Oh, come on, dude! Not cool!” I protested when I caught on.
“That’s good!” said Fabian, “Keep talking in that charming patois! It seems very authentic! Hey, Cheryl, this is my friend Larry. He programmed PDP-8s!”
“And CDC Cybers,” I automatically offered.
I was initially reluctant, but soon dropped my defenses and related a number of war stories from those distant, prelapsarian days. My discussion of chadless papertape readers, 80-column punch-cards and DECtape computers may have been a little dry, but there were smiles when I explained that you typically numbered your lines in BASIC by multiples of 10 so that you could insert forgotten details in the middle. “That totally makes sense!” said one pink-haired girl to another.
“They had to be resourceful, the poor dears,” said the other.
That irritated me enough that I cut off my explanation of why Flash is the same thing as FORTRAN. I walked away from the group, ignoring their calls of “Tell us another horror story about unrestricted void pointers!” and “What was ASCII like?”
My sour mode dwindled as I wandered through the show and tell: the VIC-20s and PETs, TRS-80s, TI-99s, and Tandies. I misted up at the sight of a vintage copy of David Ahl’s “Basic Computer Games” and the site of my old nemesis: Super Star Trek.
There was a copy of Ted Nelson’s 1974 publication “Computer Lib/Dream Machines,” the two halves of which were printed in different orientations and which lamented the then-current “Baroque Age” of computers, and which prophesied the coming “Diaphanous Age” of comprehensible, general-purpose computers. “He conceived hypertext,” the owner informed me, “and called HTML ‘precisely what we were trying to prevent.'”
The star exhibit, though, was an “artisanally wire-wrapped” Zilog Z80. “I haven’t seen a wire-wrapped computer since, well, the aulde dayes,” I said. “That’s quite a bit of dedication.”
“It gives the bits a warmer, richer tone that you just can’t get with printed circuits,” said the owner with considerable pride and confidence. I was about to talk to him about that when he shifted his gaze elsewhere and narrowed it. “Hello, Nils,” he hissed.
“Hello, Derek,” said the newcomer, leaning on his cane and examining the Z80 through his platinum-rimmed pince-nez. “You’re still wire-wrapping? How quaint. A bit… modern… but still, nice effort if it’s the best you can do.”
Bristling at his attitude, I asked what he did that justified such an air of superiority. He evaluated me with a smirk before deigning to answer.
“Well, if you want a truly rich computation, you absolutely must use mercury delay lines,” he said, idly gesturing at a nearby table, on which sat a device that looked like a prop for a nuclear bomb from a 1960s spy movie. “It contains a speaker at one end, blasts sound into a channel of mercury, and the pulse is then read at the far end some microseconds later, providing rapid memory access.”
The results, he assured me, provided a more satisfying computation.
“So, for what sorts of things do you use this rich, artisanal computer?” I asked.
“Cat pictures,” he said, “Mostly cat pictures.”
Larry O’Brien, former Editor of Software Development and Computer Language magazines, is a software developer living in Hawaii.