VCF East X: The World’s Largest USB Thumb Drive

The Vintage Computer Festival last weekend featured racks and racks of old minicomputers, enough terminals for an entire lab, and enough ancient storage devices to save a YouTube video. These storage devices – hard disks, tape readers, and 8″ disk drives – were only connected to vintage hardware, with one exception: a DEC RL02 drive connected to a modern laptop via USB.

The DEC RL02 drive is the closest you’re going to get to a modern mechanical hard drive with these old machines. It’s a huge rack unit with removable platters that can hold 10 Megabytes of storage. [Chris] found one of these old drives and because he wanted to get into FPGA development, decided to create a USB adapter for this huge, old drive.

The hardware isn’t too terribly complex, with a microcontroller and an FPGA that exposes the contents of the drive over USB mass storage. For anyone trying to bootstrap a PDP-11 or -8 system, [Chris] could download disk images from the Internet, write them to the disk, and load up the contents of the drive from the minicomputer. Now, he’s using it with SimH to have a physical drive for an emulated system, but the controller really doesn’t care about what format the disk pack is in. If [Chris] formatted a disk pack with a FAT file system, he would have the world’s largest and heaviest USB thumb drive in the world.

Video below.

Update: As promised, [Chris] put all the code in a git

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VCF East: [Bil Herd] And System Architecture

Last Friday the Vintage Computer Festival was filled up with more than a dozen talks, too many for any one person to attend. We did, however, check out [Bil Herd]’s talk on system architecture, or as he likes to call it, the art and science of performance through balance. That’s an hour and fifteen minute talk there; coffee and popcorn protocols apply.

The main focus of this talk is how to design a system from the ground up, without any assumed hardware, or any specific peripherals. It all starts out with a CPU, some memory (it doesn’t matter which type), and some I/O. That’s all you need, whether you’re designing a microwave oven or a supercomputer.

The CPU for a system can be anything from a 6502 for something simple, a vector processor for doing loads of math, or have a RISC, streaming, pipelined, SIMD architecture. This choice will influence the decision of what kind of memory to use, whether it’s static or dynamic, and whether it’s big or little endian. Yes, even [Bil] is still trying to wrap his head around endianness.

MMUs, I/O chips, teletypes, character displays like the 6845, and the ANTIC, VIC, and GTIA make the cut before [Bil] mentions putting the entire system together. It’s not just a matter of connecting address and data pins and seeing the entire system run. There’s interrupts, RTCs, bus arbitration, DTACK, RAS, and CAS to take care of that. That will take several more talks to cover, but you can see the one last Friday below.

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VCF East X: Minicomputing With The Raspberry Pi

The Vintage Computer Festival in Wall, New Jersey doesn’t just attract locals; [Oscar] came all the way from Switzerland to show off his PiDP-8/I. It’s a miniature minicomputer, emulated in SimH, with blinkenlights and toggle switches mounted to a Raspberry Pi Hat.

Although the PiDP-8 is emulating a machine with thousands of discrete transistors, the design is exceptionally simple. On the board is 92 LEDs, a bunch of diodes, 26 toggle switches, a driver chip, and that’s about it. All the multiplexing for the switches and LEDs is taken care of in software. On the Raspberry Pi side, [Oscar] is able to run FOCAL, OS/8, and, like a normal-sized PDP-8, can toggle in programs manually.

Instead of having connecting to the ribbon cables coming out of RK01 disk drives and DECtapes, [Oscar] is emulating those too. All the files that would reside on old Digital storage mediums are now stuffed into USB thumb drives. A USB hub is plugged into the Pi, and when one of these USB disk packs is plugged into the hub, loading an operating system or a program is just a matter of flicking a few toggle switches.

[Oscar] has been working hard to turn the PiDP-8 into a kit, and the word around the booths is that this will happen sometime this summer. The expected price for this kit is very interesting: somewhere between $100 and $150 USD. For that price, we’d expect someone to rig up an Arduino-based paper tape reader very quickly, perhaps this afternoon.

More pics and a video of the PiDP-8/I below.
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VCF East X: The Not Trashy Eighty

The lowly TRS-80 doesn’t get much love in most circles; it’s constantly overshadowed by the popularity of the Apple II or computers that had graphics that weren’t terrible. For [Mike Loewen]’s VCF exhibit, he’s turning his TRS-80 into something good with SD card disk drives and custom graphics adapters.

The -80 in question is a Model 4, the fancy all-in-one version that could run CP/M. The disk drives in this computer were replaced with half-height 5 1/4″ drives, the 200ns RAM was replaced with 100ns RAM and modified to get rid of the wait states, and a hard drive is emulated on a SD card adapter thanks to an add-on from [Ian Mavric].

[Ian] is somewhat prolific in the world of TRS-80s; he reverse engineered the original hi-res graphics board and reimplemented it with video RAM chips of a more modern vintage.

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VCF East X: Virtual Reality With PETSCII

What would happen if Oculus-quality virtual reality was created in the 80s on the Commodore PET? [Michael Hill] knows, because he created a stereoscopic video headset using a PET.

This build is an extension of [Michael]’s exhibit last year at VCF East where he displayed a video feed with PETSCII. Yes, that means displaying video with characters, not pixels.

This year, he’s doubling the number of screens, and sending everything to two iPhones in a Google Cardboard-like VR headset. Apart from the optics, the setup is pretty simple: cameras get image data, it’s sent over to a PET, and a stream of characters are sent back.

It’s impossible to film, and using it is interesting, to say the least. Video below.

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VCF East X: The Quarternet Steering Committee

Today was the first day of the Vintage Computer Festival East X. As is the tradition, the first day was packed with talks and classes about various retrocomputing ephemera, with this year featuring a great talk from [David Riley] about 8-bit computer music, a class on system architecture from our own [Bil Herd] (video coming soon), and a talk about vintage teletypes. One of these talks was about creating new hardware: [Jim Brain]’s steering committee on a networking solution for vintage microcontrollers. It’s called Quarternet: a two-bit solution for an eight bit world.

While minicomputers are easily networkable, designed around multi-user operating systems, and have the hardware for a lot of networking hardware, 8-bit micros are the exact opposite. That doesn’t mean 8-bitters don’t have networking; you can get an Ethernet cart for a C64, and just about everything can connect to a BBS. [Jim]’s talk was about whittling down the use cases for the Quarternet to something that could be implemented easily, but still give the most capability.

During the talk, the audience settled on using a serial connection from the micro to the outside world; this makes sense, as everything has a serial port. A ‘lightweight API’ was suggested to take up the software side of the problem, but there wasn’t much agreement over what that API would actually do.

[Jim]’s idea is for a box that plugs into the serial port of any old microcomputer and would connect to the Internet somehow. Ethernet, WiFi, or even a modem isn’t out of the question here. That takes care of connecting to the Internet, but there’s also the question of the cooler side of networking – network drives, file sharing, and the like.

For this, [Jim] is imagining a box with a serial port on one end, and a network port on the other. In the middle would be a cartridge slot for any hardware imaginable. If you want to plug in an Apple II disk drive, just insert the right cartridge and you’re good to go. If you need network access to a Commodore 1541 drive, just insert another cartridge, and it’ll just work.

It’s an interesting idea, but [Jim] is really interested in getting even more feedback for a networking system for old microcomputers. If you have any ideas, leave a note for him in the comments.

The RUM 80 – a home brew Z80 computer built from scratch

[M] recently tipped us off about hacker [Lumir Vanek] from the Czech Republic. Between 1985 and 1989, [Lumir] built his own home brew, Z80 based computer. The list of home computers available in the 1980’s is extensive. Those living in western Europe and the Americas could choose offerings from Acorn, Apple, Commodore, Atari, Radio Shack, and Sinclair Research to name just a few. Even the erstwhile Czechoslovakia had home computers available from Didaktik and Tesla.

[Lumir]’s built was based around the Z80 processor and is built using regular, double-sided, prototyping board. It featured the 8-bit Z80 processor CPU, 8kB EPROM with monitor and BASIC, two Z80 CTC timers, an 8255 parallel interface for keyboard and external connector, 64kB DRAM, and Video output in black & white, 40×25 characters, connected to a TV. The enclosure is completely made from copper clad laminate. [Lumir] documented the schematics, but there is no board layout – since the whole thing was discrete wired. He even built the membrane keyboard – describing it as “layers of cuprextit, gum, paper with painted keys and transparent film”. When he ran out of space on the main board, he built an expansion board. This had an 8251 serial interface for cassette deck, one 8-bit D/A converter, and an 8255 parallel port connected to the “one pin” BT100 printer.

On the software side, he wrote his own monitor program, which allowed simple interactions, such as displaying and modifying registers, memory, I/O ports and to run programs. He wrote this from scratch referring to the Z80 instruction set for help. Later he added a CP/M emulator. Since the Z80 had dual registers, one was used for user interaction, while the other was reserved to allow background printing. Eventually, he even managed to port BASIC to his system.

Check out [Martin Malý]’s awesome article Home Computers behind the Iron Curtain and the follow up article on Peripherals behind the  Iron Curtain, where you can read more about the “one pin” BT100 printer.

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