KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Yellowed keyboards, monitors and disk drives sat in orderly piles. It certainly wasn’t pretty to look at, not when you compare these ancient artifacts of personal computing to a shiny new MacBook Pro.
But 80 infatuated campers could only see their first crush and they were ready to pounce. In a matter of minutes the gear would be claimed, and this dash and grab Wednesday was the kickoff the 28th annual KansasFest. If you don’t know KansasFest, the short answer is found in a cheer shouted to officially open the event: Apple II forever!
Most every Apple product, even the failures, are celebrated in the minds of Apple fans, but only one, the Apple II, has its own weeklong festival. It was Apple’s first mass-produced personal computer, launching in 1977 and it made the Apple brand and its founders, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, household names.
Apple ended production of the Apple II with the Apple IIe in 1993, but even before that, loyal Apple II users could see the company was phasing out their beloved machine. The Macintosh was getting all the attention and the Apple II was left to wither without many updates. In 1989, a group of users and developers gathered to keep the machines alive, sharing software knowledge and hardware hacks in what became the first KansasFest (the original organizer lived in the Kansas City area, hence the name).
Love for Apple
“The Apple II wasn’t getting much attention. Today it would be like the iPhone not getting updates for four, five or six years,” says Steven Weyhrich, a KansasFest board member. “In retrospect, Apple was right to see the Mac as the future, but still …
“KansasFest was a developers conference for the first five years and people kept coming back. One year, it was down to 28 people and we still had it.”
Weyhrich said the number of festgoers has been growing, with a mix of the original torch carriers, vintage computer fans and, in some case, teenagers with a taste for hacking hardware. Don’t judge the love for Apple II on just the KansasFest attendance.
There is an Apple II user group that is more than 3,500 members large and if you are bummed to have missed the 2016 festival here, there is an Apple II festival in France Aug. 11-15.
Festgoers, from all over the U.S. and as far away as Japan and Australia, spend five days on the campus of Rockhurst /University attending seminars, swapping software, hardware, old manuals and copies of the now defunct Nibble magazine. Staying in a dorm, they will spend their evenings devising hacks that give the Apple II some 21st-century computing powers.
On Saturday, the final day of the fest, the most creative hacks are awarded prizes.
The industrious have created ways to connect the pioneering computer to the latest LCD screen, give it 8MB of memory (the highest back in the day was 64KB) and make an SD card emulate a floppy disk.
Talk among festgoers can be rather wonky, but this is a group who learned their machines inside and out, built spreadsheets and databases, and in some cases wrote their own software. Today’s Apple fan doesn’t have to understand how their machine works, and if a problem arises they can make an appointment with the Genius Bar.
But the very heart of this festival is in the individual stories of how people became so loyal to the Apple II. For some, it’s the kid who wanted one but whose parents bought nothing but Intel PCs. For others, it’s like an old man trying to find the first car they had as a teenager.
T. Joseph Carter, of Portland, Ore. was born blind and the Apple II helped him to read and write while in elementary school. “Sitting behind that keyboard, I could do anything a sighted person could,” he said.
Javier Rivera, of Miami, Fla. remembers growing up in Mexico and his father smuggling an Apple IIc into the country. “Look at these things,” Rivera said of the Apple II. “Thirty-five years later, they still work. Today’s MacBook won’t make it that far.”
On Wednesday, Kathryn Szkotnicki, 39, a teacher from Harpers Ferry, WVa., finally got the Apple IIGS she has wanted since she was 12. But she had to work for it.
Prior to the Apple II Garage Giveaway, Szkotnicki scouted out the monitors, keyboards, and various peripherals. She emerged from the scrum with all the pieces she needed, including a mouse and a couple of game paddles she draped around her neck.
“The 12-year-old me is very happy,” she said.
Check out last year’s “K-Fest Funk” video below.