KIM-1 to COSMAC Elf Conversion — Sort Of

In the mid-1970s, if you had your own computer, you probably built it. If you had a lot of money and considerable building skill, you could make an Altair 8800 for about $395 — better than the $650 to have it built. However, cheaper alternatives were not far behind.

In 1976, Popular Electronics published plans for a computer called the COSMAC Elf which you could build for under $100, and much less if you had a good junk box. The design was simple enough that you could build it on a piece of perf board or using wire wrap. We featured the online archive of the entire Popular Electronics collection, but hit up page 33 of this PDF if you want to jump right to the article that started it all. The COSMAC Elf is a great little machine built around a 40-pin RCA 1802 processor, and for many was the first computer they owned. I lost my original 1802 computer in a storm and my recent rebuild in another completely different kind of storm. But there is a way to reclaim those glory days without starting from scratch.  I’m going to repurpose another retro-computing recreation; the KIM-1.

I’ll admit it, Rewiring a real KIM-1 to take an 1802 CPU would be difficult and unnecessary and that’s not what this article is about. However, I did have a KIM UNO — [Oscar’s] respin of the classic computer using an Arduino mini pro. Looking at the keyboard, it occurred to me that the Arduino could just as easily simulate an 1802 as it could a 6502. Heck, that’s only two digits different, right?

The result is pretty pleasing. A “real” Elf had 8 toggle switches, but there were several variations that did have keypads, so it isn’t that far off. Most Elf computers had 256 bytes of memory (without an upgrade) but the 1802 UNO (as I’m calling it) has 1K. There’s also a host of other features, including a ROM and a monitor for loading and debugging programs that doesn’t require any space in the emulated 1802.

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COSMAC Elf Calculator Gets New Firmware

Everyone remembers their first. Their first CPU, that is. For many of us, it was the RCA 1802 thanks to the COSMAC Elf articles that ran in Popular Electronics. The later versions of the chip family were much better but were never as popular, but the 1805 did find its way into a printing calculator for dimensions from a company named Boyd. Some of these recently showed up on the surplus market and–of course–were subsequently hacked.

[Bill Rowe] is active in the groups that still work with the 1802. Because of some specialized uses you can still get the chips readily, some four decades after they were new. Other computers at the time were difficult to build and relatively expensive, while for $100 almost anyone could wire wrap a simple 1802-based computer together in a weekend or less.

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Vintage COSMAC Elf is Pretty Close to Original

Popular Electronics was famous for the article introducing the Altair 8800 back in 1975 (well, the cover date was 1975; it really came out in late 1974). That was so popular (no pun intended), that they ran more computer construction articles, including the SWTPC 680 late in 1975. But in 1976 a very popular article ran on building a very simple computer called the COSMAC ELF. [Youtubba] had an Altair, but always wanted a “cute” COSMAC ELF. Now, forty-something years later, he finally got around to it. He made the very detailed video about his experience, below.

Surprisingly, he didn’t have to look very hard for too many of the components as most of them were available from Digikey. He had to get compatible RAM chips, the 1802 CPU and LED displays. He also couldn’t find a look-alike crystal, so he used a fake one and a hidden oscillator. The result looks awfully close to the original. He even did a nice front panel using Front Panel Express.

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Reliving 1977’s cutting-edge computer with the Pocket Mini Computer

Classic computers are just up [Jeff]’s alley, so when he looked for a new project for his Pocket Mini Computer, he looked at one of the earliest microcomputers available: the COSMAC VIP, a 1.76 MHz beast from 1977.

The COSMAC VIP was a single-board educational computer released by RCA in 1977. Priced at just a hair under $300, the COSMAC was much more affordable than infamous $1300 ‘fruit’ computer also released that year. To get young programmers up and running quickly, the COSMAC came bundled with the CHIP-8 programming language, making it very easy to generate graphics on-screen for all the eventual PONG and Breakout clones.

[Jeff]’s COSMAC VIP runs on a Pocket Mini Computer, a very cool Parallax Propeller-powered board we’ve seen before emulate other retro computers including the venerable Commodore SID synthesizer chip.

Because the COSMAC’s user interface was the very, very old-school 4×4 hexadecimal keypad, [Jeff] found it necessary to emulate this retro feature by soldering his own 4×4 keypad. After soldering 16 buttons into 8 columns and rows, [Jeff] connected this keyboard to a PFC8574a I2C I/O expander and connected this chip to the I2C bus on the Pocket Mini Computer.

The result is an emulated COSMAC VIP that’s just begging for an ‘introduction to microprocessors’ class or just a round of Tetris, Tic-tac-toe, Lunar Lander, or one of the several Breakout clones available for this very cool computer. A pretty awesome build, even if it is from the dawn of the computer age.