Discrete Transistor Computer Is Not Discreet

Every few years, we hear about someone building a computer from first principles. This doesn’t mean getting a 6502 or Z80, wiring it up, and running BASIC. I’m talking about builds from the ground up, starting with logic chips or even just transistors.

[James Newman]’s 16-bit CPU built from transistors is something he’s been working on for a little under a year now, and it’s shaping up to be one of the most impressive computer builds since the days of Cray and Control Data Corporation.

The 10,000 foot view of this computer is a machine with a 16-bit data bus, a 16-bit address bus, all built out of individual circuit boards containing single OR, AND, XOR gates, decoders, multiplexers, and registers.  These modules are laid out on 2×1.5 meter frames, each of them containing a schematic of the computer printed out with a plotter. The individual circuit modules sit right on top of this schematic, and if you have enough time on your hands, you can trace out every signal in this computer.

The architecture of the computer is more or less the same as any 16-bit processor. Three are four general purpose registers, a 16 bit program counter, a stack pointer, and a status register. [James] already has an assembler and simulator, and the instruction set is more or less what you would expect from a basic microprocessor, although this thing does have division and multiplication instructions.

The first three ‘frames’ of this computer, containing the general purpose registers, the state and status registers, and the ALU, are already complete. Those circuits are mounted on towering frames made of aluminum extrusion. [James] already has 32 bytes of memory wired up, with each individual bit having its own LED. This RAM display will be used for the Game of Life simulation once everything is working.

While this build may seem utterly impractical, it’s not too different from a few notable and historical computers. The fastest computer in the world from 1964 to ’69 was built from individual transistors, and had even wider busses and more registers. The CDC6600 was capable of running at around 10MHz, many times faster than the estimated maximum speed of [James]’ computer – 25kHz. Still, building a computer on this scale is an amazing accomplishment, and something we can’t wait to see running the Game of Life.

Thanks [aleksclark], [Michael], and [wulfman] for sending this in.

Vintage Computers At Maker Faire

It’s no secret that Maker Faire is highly geared toward the younger crowd. This doen’t mean the Faire is completely devoid of the historic; the Bay Area Maker Faire is right in the heart of the beginnings of the computer industry, and a few of the booths are showing off exactly how far computers have come over the last forty years.

Superboard[Vince Briel] of Briel Computers has a booth showing off his wares, mostly modern reimaginings of vintage computers. His table is loaded up with replica 1s, a board that’s much smaller but still completely compatible with the Apple I. The MicroKIM made an appearance, but the crown jewel is [Vince]’s Superboard III, a replica of the Ohio Scientific Superboard II. It’s your basic 6502 computer with 32k of RAM, but unlike just about every other modern retrocomputer out there, [Vince] put the keyboard right on the main board.

The switches are Cherry MX, the keys are from WASDkeyboards. [Vince] is actually getting a lot of interest in making modern ASCII keyboards to replace the old and busted boards that came in the home computers of the 70s and 80s. That might be a project [Vince] will release sometime in the future.

[Jef Raskin], the Swift Card, and the Canon Cat

[Steve Jobs] may have been the father of the Macintosh, but he was, by no means, solely responsible for the Mac. It was a team of people, and when you talk about the UI of the Mac, the first name that should come up is [Jef Raskin].

One of [Jef Raskin]’s finest works was the Swyft Card, an add-on to the Apple II that was basically just a ROM card that had an OS and Forth interpreter on it. The distinguishing feature of the Swyft card was the use of ‘leap’ keys, a simple way to change contexts when using the computer. We’ve seen replicas of the Swyft card before, courtesy of [Mike Willegal] at the Vintage Computing Festival East.

Woodie[Dwight Elvey] of the vintage-computer.com forum brought a few extra special items related to [Raskin] and the Canon Cat. The first was a Swyft card installed in an Apple IIe. The second was a prototype Swyft computer, with SERIAL NUMBER 1 printed on a Dymo label and fixed to the case.

The ‘woodie’, as [Dwight] calls it, has two 1.44 MB disk drives, of which half of the disk is actually usable. [Dwight] didn’t take the machine apart, but I’m 99% sure the CRT in it is the exact same tube found in early 9″ Macs.

Also in [Dwight]’s display is a production Swyft computer and a Canon Cat, the final iteration of [Jef Raskin]’s idea of what a text-based computer should be.

The vintage-computer booth also had a few interesting retrocomputers including a Commodore 128D, the Apple made, Bell & Howell branded Apple II, and an Amiga 2000. Right next door was the Computer History Museum, who brought a very kid-friendly storage medium display. Showing a 10-year-old an 8″ disk is fun.

Relays Calculate Square Roots

After seeing an exhibit of an old relay-based computer as a kid, [Simon] was inspired to build a simple two-relay latching circuit. Since then, he’s been fascinated by how relays can function to do computation. He’s come quite a long way from that first latching circuit, however, and recently finished a huge five-year project which uses electromechanical relays to calculate square roots.

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The frame of the square root calculator can hold up to 30 identical relay modules, each of which hold 16 relays on PCBs, for a total of 480 relays. The module-based setup makes repair and maintenance a breeze. Numbers are entered into the computer by a rotary dial from an old phone and stored in the calculator’s relay memory. A nixie tube display completes the bygone era-theme of the device and shows either the current number that’s being entered, or the square root of that number as it’s being calculated.

The real magic of this project is that each relay has an LED which illuminates whenever the relay is energized, which shows the user exactly where all of the bits of the machine are going. [Simon] worked on this project from 2009 and recently completed it in 2014, and it has been featured at the San Mateo Maker Faire and at Microsoft Research in Redmond, WA. We’ve seen smaller versions of this before, but never on this scale and never for one specific operation like square roots.

Video below. Thanks to [Bonsaichop] for the tip!

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Retrotechtacular: The Early Days of CGI

We all know what Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) is nowadays. It’s almost impossible to get away from it in any television show or movie. It’s gotten so good, that sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between the real world and the computer generated world when they are mixed together on-screen. Of course, it wasn’t always like this. This 1982 clip from BBC’s Tomorrow’s World shows what the wonders of CGI were capable of in a simpler time.

In the earliest days of CGI, digital computers weren’t even really a thing. [John Whitney] was an American animator and is widely considered to be the father of computer animation. In the 1940’s, he and his brother [James] started to experiment with what they called “abstract animation”. They pieced together old analog computers and servos to make their own devices that were capable of controlling the motion of lights and lit objects. While this process may be a far cry from the CGI of today, it is still animation performed by a computer. One of [Whitney’s] best known works is the opening title sequence to [Alfred Hitchcock’s] 1958 film, Vertigo.

Later, in 1973, Westworld become the very first feature film to feature CGI. The film was a science fiction western-thriller about amusement park robots that become evil. The studio wanted footage of the robot’s “computer vision” but they would need an expert to get the job done right. They ultimately hired [John Whitney’s] son, [John Whitney Jr] to lead the project. The process first required color separating each frame of the 70mm film because [John Jr] did not have a color scanner. He then used a computer to digitally modify each image to create what we would now recognize as a “pixelated” effect. The computer processing took approximately eight hours for every ten seconds of footage. Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Early Days of CGI”

A Smaller, Homebrew Amstrad

Although they weren’t very popular in America, the Amstrad CPC 464 and CPC 6128 were extremely well-received in Europe. [Zaxon] loved his ‘464, and for a bit of a learning experience – and the fact that an Amstrad takes up an exceptional amount of desk space – decided to make a clone of his favorite computer (.pl, Google translatrix).

The clone began as a simple schematic of the original Amstrad CPC 464, but the parts used in the original required some modern equivalents. Still, most of the old chips remained in the clone; the original Hitachi HD46505 CRT controller remains, as do the original DRAM chips and the vintage Z80 CPU.

A few modern amenities were added, including an interface for a PS/2 keyboard and a disk that’s much improved over the original cassette drive or weird 3.5″ disks: a Disk On Module, or basically a CompactFlash card in a strange form factor that plugs straight into a motherboard’s IDE socket. They’re mostly seen when tearing apart old thin clients, but using them in retrocomputing project is a great idea.

Thanks [rasz_pl] for the tip. Video below.

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PCI I-RAM Working Without a PCI Slot

[Gnif] had a recent hard drive failure in his home server. When rebuilding his RAID array, he decided to update to the ZFS file system. While researching ZFS, [Gnif] learned that the file system allows for a small USB cache disk to greatly improve his disk performance. Since USB is rather slow, [Gnif] had an idea to try to use an old i-RAM PCI card instead.

The problem was that he didn’t have any free PCI slots left in his home server. It didn’t take long for [Gnif] to realize that the PCI card was only using the PCI slot for power. All of the data transfer is actually done via a SATA cable. [Gnif] decided that he could likely get by without an actual PCI slot with just a bit of hacking.

[Gnif] desoldered a PCI socket from an old faulty motherboard, losing half of the pins in the process. Luckily, the pins he needed still remained. [Gnif] knew that DDR memory can be very power-hungry. This meant that he couldn’t only solder one wire for each of the 3v, 5v, 12v, and ground pins. He had to connect all of them in order to share the current load. All in all, this ended up being about 20 pins. He later tested the current draw and found it reached as high as 1.2 amps, confirming his earlier decision. Finally, the reset pin needed to be pulled to 3.3V in order to make the disk accessible.

All of the wires from his adapter were run to Molex connectors. This allows [Gnif] to power the device from a computer power supply. All of the connections were covered in hot glue to prevent them from wriggling lose.

Computer Built into a Board Uses Only 10 Watts

In the realm of low-powered desktop computers, there are some options such as the Raspberry Pi that usually come out on top. While they use only a few watts, these tend to be a little lackluster in the performance department and sometimes a full desktop computer is called for. [Emile] aka [Mux] is somewhat of an expert at pairing down the power requirements for desktop computers, and got his to run on just 10 watts. Not only that, but he installed the whole thing in a board and mounted it to his wall. (Google Translated from Dutch)

The computer itself is based on a MSI H81M-P33 motherboard and a Celeron G1820 dual-core processor with 8GB RAM. To keep the power requirements down even further, the motherboard was heavily modified. To power the stereo custom USB DAC, power amplifier board, and USB volume button boards were built and installed. The display is handled by an Optoma pico projector, and the 10-watt power requirement allows the computer to be passively cooled as well.

As impressive as the electronics are for this computer, the housing for it is equally so. Everything is mounted to the backside of an elegant piece of wood which has been purposefully carved out to hold each specific component. Custom speakers were carved as well, and the entire thing is mounted on the wall above the bed. The only electronics visible is the projector! It’s even more impressive than [Mux]’s first low-power computer.