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Spare Parts

By Joab Jackson | Posted 4/4/2001

A few guys are standing around a table filled with boxes spilling over with capacitors, LED arrays, and wire cutters. The gray afternoon sky is threatening rain again. A guy talking to the vendor behind the table suddenly barks in my direction: "Hey, maybe you or someone else here will know what this is." He reaches into a plastic bag and pulls out a weather-beaten black box. It's a bit larger than today's handheld computers but smaller than a laptop; there's a microsoft works label stuck to it.

"Never saw anything like it before," I reply. Looks to be about 6 years old, an already long-forgotten relic of the digital age. The new owner says it has office software burned right into the EPROM chip itself. It runs on four AA batteries, and, at $10, he figures it's worth buying just to toy with. He asks if anyone knows whether he can plug it into the Net with an extension card or install modem software on it.

Now, the oddest thing here isn't that someone would purchase such a strange device, or even that onlookers are momentarily transfixed by it. The most amazing thing is that someone actually knows what it is.

"Oh yeah, I used to use those things," this someone pipes up. "Grocery stores would use 'em to uplink data to satellites."

That's what's so wonderful about the Greater Baltimore Hamboree & ComputerFest, Hamfest for short, an annual early-spring ritual at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium. Held this year March 29 and April 1, Hamfest is the meeting ground for hard-core hardware desperados, gadget-geek price-scroungers, and lovers of obscure circuitry. It's the one event guaranteed to draw out into the daylight members of area tech mailing lists, from the Maryland outpost of the hacker magazine 2600 to Geeks Into the Streets, a group of Linux devotees working to bring computers to the disadvantaged, to the Baltimore Science Fiction Society, which this year sold used equipment donated by members.

It may not be quite the subcultural spectacle of, say, the Sturgis Rally , but Hamfest does have its own iconoclastic esprit de corps. It's the only swap meet I know of where a fiftysomething guy with a Buddha belly can freely ride about the grounds on a razor scooter and not look out of place. Or where someone can put a banner across his van proclaiming girlfriend wanted and actually get leads.

Sponsored each year by the Baltimore Amateur Radio Club, Hamfest started as a gathering for ham-radio enthusiasts, who were into the global-communication thing years before the Internet came along. Over the years, computer hobbyists made a considerable dent in the event--not surprising, considering the overlap between the two worlds. At this year's fest, one vendor showed me some software designed to give a $100 shortwave radio the versatility of a $3,000 unit.

Unfortunately, the turnout this season sucked. The parking lot between the pavilions where a lot of people set up tables to sell stuff was mostly empty by noon March 31. Evidently, early rains and a gloomy forecast scared many back home. That daylight-savings time gobbled up a precious hour of the weekend didn't help either.

Still, both inside the pavilions and out, a mind-blowing cornucopia of digital circuitry was there to be rummaged through, brought in by vendors who go from show to show, local store owners, and people just looking to make some extra cash. The range goes far beyond the usual Marketpro aggregation of local computer sellers. There were stacks of laser-disc players, cable boxes, phone switchboards, dot-com mugs, antennas, stereo components, cell phones, remote-operated toy trucks, vacuum tubes in raggedy boxes, answering machines, Ma Bell telephones, wires, cables, shrink tubing, shortwave radios and headsets, manuals on every conceivable industrial gadget--all at prices so low that if you had any inkling to make use of this stuff, however tenuous and uncertain, it'd be worth the cash. Heck, some of it is almost worth buying for aesthetic value alone. One vendor had a steamer trunk-sized black box that looked like something out of a 1930s mad-scientist movie. The thing had fiendishly big knobs and voltage meters. The owner said it was a signal generator, one used, he speculated, to test phone lines in the '40s. He'd sell it to me for the value of the tubes inside, $40.

But I didn't buy it, for the same reason I didn't buy a NeXT workstation, of which another table had a stack going for $20 each. NeXT was Steve Jobs' late-'80s/early-'90s stab at building next-generation computers. And underneath the cakes of dust and magic-marker scrawls on these models, one couldn't help but notice their sleek design. They really were ahead of their time. I figured it'd be worth $20 just to take a peek inside. Unfortunately, I'd need a special monitor; while equally cheap, it rendered the whole package, like the signal generator, too unwieldy to drag home.

Which is my major complaint with Hamfest. All my initial excitement always leads straight to the "Where can I put it?" dead end. I'm still working through last year's junk.

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