30 Years later TED finds his voice: A Commodore Story Part II

Commodore v364, a speech powered computer from the 1980s.

[Continued from 30 Years later TED finds his voice: A Commodore Story Part I]

Like parents standing on the porch waiting to see their children off to their first day of school we waited for what comes next in a release to production. Among our children: The C116 ($49 Sinclair killer), the C264 ($79 office computer), and the V364 – The computer with an interactive desktop that could speak (courtesy of [John Fegans] who gave us the lion’s share of what made the C64 software great).

Something happened then, and by something I mean nothing. Nothing happened. We waited to assist in production builds and stood ready to make engineering change notices, and yet nothing happened. It was around this time that [Mr. Jack Tramiel] had left the company, I know why he left but I can’t tell due to a promise I made. Sadly, without [Tramiel's] vision and direction the new product releases pretty much stopped.

What happens when Marketing tries to design a computer: a TED in a C64 case known as a C16

What happens when Marketing tries to design a computer: a TED in a C64 case known as a C16.

Meanwhile in Marketing, someone came up with the idea to make the C264 more expensive so that they could then sell it for a prohibitively high price in. They changed the name, they told us to add chips, and they added software that (at best) wasn’t of interest to the users at that price. They wanted another C64, after all it had previously been the source of some success. Meanwhile the C116 and the V364 prototypes slowly melded into the random storage of a busy R&D lab. We literally didn’t notice what had happened; we were too busy arguing against abominations such as the C16 — a “creation” brought about by a shoving a TED board into a C64 case (the term inbred came to mind at the time).

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30 Years later TED finds his voice: A Commodore Story Part I

MOS VICII Chip

MOS VICC II Video Interface Chip

MOS SID Chip

MOS SID Chip Sound Interface Device

In the before-time (I’m talking about the 1980’s here), when home computers were considered to be consumer items, there was the Commodore C64. The C64 derived its vast array of superpowers from two Integrated Circuits (IC) named VIC and SID standing for Video Interface Chip and Sound Interface Device. Chip names were part of our culture back them, from VIC up to Fat AGNES in the end.

We spoke about VIC and SID as if they were people or distant relatives, sometimes cantankerous or prone to sudden outburst, but there was always an underlying respect for the chips and the engineers who made them. VIC and SID together made one of the world’s best video and sound experiences; movement and noise, musical notes and aliens.

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[Bil's] Quest for a Lost Finger: Episode I

A little over a year ago I had a semi-gruesome accident; I stepped off of a ladder and I caught my wedding ring on a nail head. It literally stripped the finger off the bone. This was in spite of me being a safety-freak and having lived a whole second life doing emergency medicine and working in trauma centers and the like. I do have trauma center mentality which means, among other things, that I know you can’t wind the clock back. A few seconds make an incredible differences in people’s lives. Knowing that it couldn’t be undone, I stayed relaxed and in the end I have to say I had a good time that day as I worked my way through the system (I ended  up in a Philadelphia trauma center with a nearby hand specialist) as I was usually the funniest guy in the room. Truth be told they ask incredibly straight questions like”are you right handed?”  “Well I am NOW”.

hand9 So now I could really use a bit of a body hack, having seen the X-Finger on Hackaday long before I knew that I would one day work with them, I was hoping that we could get one to work for me. In speaking with a couple of the mechanical engineers on the Hackaday staff we decided to get [James Hobson] and [Rich Bremer] involved and that the best way to do it was to get a casting of my injured hand out to them.

 

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SMT and Thru-Hole Desoldering

My introduction to electronic manufacturing was as a production technician at Pennsylvania Scale Company in Leola PA in the early 1980’s. I learned that to work on what I wanted to work on I had to get my assigned duties done by noon or thereabouts. The most important lesson I had learned as a TV repairman, other than not to chew on the high voltage cable, was to use your eyes first. I would take a box of bad PCB’s that were essentially 6502 based computers that could count and weigh, and first go through inspecting them; usually the contents were reduced 50% right off by doing this. Then it was a race to identify and fix the remaining units and to keep my pace up I had to do my own desoldering.

Desoldering with IR System

Desoldering with IR System

It worked like this; you could set units aside with instructions and the production people would at some point go through changing components etc. for you or you could desolder yourself. I was pretty good at hand de-soldering 28 and 40 pin chips using a venerable Soldapulit manual solder sucker (as they were known). But to really cook I would wait for a moment when the production de-soldering machine was available. There was one simple rule for using the desoldering station: clean it when done! Failure to do so would result in your access to the station being suspended and then you might also incur the “wrath of production” which was not limited to your lunch bag being found frozen solid or your chair soaked in defluxing chemicals.

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Bil Herd: Computing with Analog

When I was young the first “computer” I ever owned was an analog computer built from a kit. It had a sloped plastic case which had three knobs with large numerical scales around them and a small center-null meter. To operate it I would dial in two numbers as indicated by the scales and then adjust the “answer” by rotating the third dial until the little meter centered. Underneath there was a small handful of components wired on a terminal strip including two or three transistors.

Science Fair Analog Computer

Science Fair Analog Computer

In thinking back about that relic from the early 1970’s there was a moment when I assumed they may have been using the transistors as logarithmic amplifiers meaning that it was able to multiply electronically. After a few minutes of thought I came to the conclusion that it was probably much simpler and was most likely a Wheatstone Bridge. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t multiply, it was probably the printed scales that were logarithmic, much like a slide rule.

Analog slide rule on digital calculator

Old meets new: Analog and digital computation

Did someone just ask what a slide rule was? Let me explain further for anyone under 50. If you watch the video footage or movies about the Apollo Space Program you won’t see any anyone carrying a hand calculator, they didn’t exist yet. Yet the navigation guys in the first row of Mission Control known aptly as “the trench”, could quickly calculate a position or vector to within a couple of decimal places, and they did it using sliding piece of bamboo or aluminum with numbers printed on them.

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Programmable Logic II – CPL

There is a wide assortment of cheap development (dev) boards for Complex Programmable Logic Devices (CPLD), the smaller cousin of the Field Programmable Logic Array (FPLA)

Using an inexpensive board and the development software that’s free to download from the major programmable companies such as Xilinx and Altera, the only additional thing needed is a programmer module. Cheap ones are available on Ebay but I am hoping that someone takes the time to teach an ARM/Arduino to step in as a programmer.

I have a small collection of dev boards including some Ebay specials and also designs I did a few years ago to choose from. For today I am grabbing a newer board that has not been fully checked out yet; an Altera Max V device. I have stuffed the CPLD, the clock oscillator, some LED’s and part of the onboard power supply along with the JTAG header needed to program the CPLD and that’s about it.

 

Herdware CPLD 5M570ZT

Herdware CPLD 5M570ZT dedicated PCB with SRAM.

 

CPLD Schematic

CPLD Schematic showing an Altera CPLD 5M570T144

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Programmable Logic I – PLA/PAL

C64-B

Yeah I am still a little pissed that the competition is still around and we aren’t, and by “we” I mean Commodore Business Machines (CBM). It was Commodore that had the most popular home computer ever in the C64 (27 Million) and it was a team of MOS engineers after all, that had the idea to make a “micro” processor out of a 12 square inch PCB.

MOS Technologies logo and address

MOS Technology in King of Prussia/Norristown

Of course they did work at Motorola at the time and “Mot” did not want anything to do with a reduction of the profit margin on the pie-plate size processor. Of course MOS got sued by Motorola but that was an average Tuesday at MOS/CBM. I absolutely credit CBM with buying the MOS Technologies chip foundry, as together we could make our own processors, graphics chips, sound chips, memory controllers, and programmable logic.

With this arsenal at our call we didn’t have to make compromises the way other companies did such as conforming to the bus spec of an industrial standard 6845 or having to add extra logic when a custom extra pin would work. We could also make sprites.

6502 Design Team

6502 Design Team (EE Times 1975, archive.archaeology.org)

The compromise we did have to make when designing was cost, and I mean the kind of cost reduction where finding a way to save a dollar ($1USD) saved millions in the production run. I knocked $.90USD out of a transformer one day and I couldn’t focus the rest of the day due to elation.

Cost reduction is a harsh mistress however as you can’t just do it a little some of the time or only when you want to. The mental exercise of multiplying anything times a million was always there, it made it hard to buy lunch — I’d be blocking the lunch line while figuring the cost of a million tuna sandwiches FOB Tokyo [Read more...]

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