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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Restoring a vintage PDP-11/04 computer

[MattisLind] spent one and a half years to complete restoration of a Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-11/04 including peripherals like a TU60 tape drive and a LA30P Decwriter printing terminal. The computer is now able to run CAPS-11 which is a very simple operating system and also CAPS-11/BASIC. Just like the project itself, his blog post is quite long filled with interesting details. For a tl;dr version, check the video after the break.

This system originally belonged to Ericsson and [MattisLind] received it from Ericsson computer club, EDKX. He was lucky to have access to online resources which made the task easier. But it still wasn’t easy considering the number of hardware faults he had to tackle and the software challenges too. The first task was obviously looking at the Power supply. He changed the big electrolytic capacitors, and the power supply seemed to work well with his dummy load, but failed when hooked up to the backplane of the computer. Some more digging around, and a replaced thyristor later, he had it fixed. The thyristor was part of a crowbar circuit to protect the system from over-voltages should one of the main switching transistors fail.

With the power supply fixed, the CPU still wouldn’t boot. Some sleuthing around, and he pin pointed the bus receiver chip that had failed. His order of the device via a Chinese ebay seller was on the slow boat, so he just de-soldered a device from another board which improved things a bit, but it was still stuck in a loop. A replacement communications board and the system now passed diagnostics check, but failed memory testing. This turned out to be caused be a faulty DIP switch. He next tackled all the software challenges in getting the CPU board up to speed.

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Arduino Reads Punch Cards

Punch cards were a standard form of program and data storage for decades, but you’d never know it by looking around today. Card punches and even readers are becoming rare and expensive. Sometimes it takes a bit of hacking [YouTube link] to get that old iron running again!

[Antiquekid3] managed to score an old punch card reader on Ebay, but didn’t have a way to interface with it. The reader turned out to be a Documation M-1000-L. After a bit of searching, [Antiquekid3] managed to find the manual [PDF link] on BitSavers. It turns out that the Documation reader used a discrete output for each row of data. One would think the Documation reader would be a perfect fit for the PDP-8 lurking in the background of [Antiquekid3’s] video, but unfortunately the ‘8 lacks the necessary OMNIBUS card to interface with a reader.

Undaunted, [Antiquekid3] threw some modern hardware into the mix, and used an Arduino Uno as a Documation to Serial interface. The Arduino had plenty of I/O to wire up with the card reader’s interface. It also had a serial interface which made outputting data a snap. The ATmega328 even had enough power to translate each card from one of IBM’s many keypunch formats to serial.

[Antiquekid3’s] test deck of cards turned out to be a floating point data set. Plotting the data with a spreadsheet results in a nice linear set of data points. Of course, no one knows what the data is supposed to mean! Want more punch card goodness? Check out this tweeting punch card reader, or this Arduino based reader which uses LEGO and a digital camera to coax the data from the paper.

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NYC Resistor gets a PDP-11/34

PDP-11/34 NYCR

[Trammel Hudson] and NYC Resistor have gotten their hands on some old computing iron in the form of a PDP-11/34.  The PDP-11 is a 16 bit minicomputer made by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). Various incarnations of the PDP-11 were sold from the 1970’s all the way into the 1990’s. NYC Resistor’s model is has a label dating it to 1983.

The PDP was found in an old storage unit in the Bronx. Moving several racks of equipment across the city is no small feat, but NYC Resistor members have it done it so many times they’ve got it down to a science.

Once power is applied, a stock PDP won’t actually do anything until the boot loader is keyed in from the CPU front panel. Thankfully this particular PDP-11 had its boot instructions printed on a label on the CPU. NYCR’s machine also includes an M9312 “bootstrap / Unibus terminator” board, which allows the machine to boot at the push of a button.

The team connected the racks, terminals, and drives. Carefully following the instructions, they actually got their PDP to boot up! Their next step is to start reading in some of the old tapes that came with the machine. We’re all waiting with bated breath to see what “digitized monkey brains” contains. Once the machine is fully functional, we hope they get it on the internet and load up The Hackaday Retro Edition.

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Minicomputers on Microcontrollers


Developed in the very late 60s and through the 70s, the PDP-11 series of minicomputers was quite possibly the single most important computer ever created. The first widely distributed versions of Unix and C were developed on the PDP-11, and it’s hardware influence can be found in everything from the Motorola 68000 to the MSP430.

When [Dave Cheney] saw the recent 8086 simulator written in 4kB of C code, he realized simulating entire computer systems doesn’t actually require a whole lot of resources outside a big chunk of memory. Armed with an Arduino Mega clone, he set out on one of the coolest projects we’ve seen in a while: simulating a PDP-11 on an AVR.

[Dave] used an ATMega2560-powered Arduino Mega clone with an Ethernet module for the hardware of this build. Attached to it is a shield filled up with a pair of RAM chips that expand relatively limited amount of RAM on the ‘Mega.

So far, [Dave] has his simulated system booting Unix V6 off an SD card. For PDP-11 storage, he’s also simulating an RK05 disk drive, a massive 14 inch platter containing 2.5 Megabytes of data. Compared to the original PDP-11/40, [Dave] estimates his machine is about 10 times slower. Still, an original 11/40 system fills multiple server racks, and the most common installations consume several kilowatts of power. The Arduino Mega can fit in a pocket and can be powered over USB.

Future developments for this system include improving the accuracy of the simulator, running more advanced operating systems and the DEC diagnostic programs, and possibly speeding up the simulation. We’d suggest adding some switches and blinkenlights on an additional shield, but that’s just us.

All the code can be found on [Dave]’s git, with a description of his SPI RAM shield coming shortly.

VT100 Gets BeagleBoned


How do you make a great terminal even better?  The answer is simple: add a BeagleBone Black to it! [Brendan] got his hands on one of the staples of classic computing, the DEC VT100 terminal.  The VT100 was produced from 1978 to 1983. The terminal was so widely used that it became the standard for other terminals to emulate. Open any terminal program today and chances are you’ll find a setting for VT100 emulation.

[Brendan] originally hooked his terminal up to a laptop running Linux. The terminal, cables, and the laptop itself became quite a bit to manage on a small desk. To combat this he decided to add a BeagleBone Black inside the terminal case. It turns out the VT100 actually lends itself to this with its Standard Terminal Port (STP) connector. The STP was designed to add a “paddle board” in-line with the serial stream of the terminal. DEC and third party manufacturers used this port to add everything from disk drives to entire CPM computers to the VT100.

[Brendan] began by designing a board to interface between the VT100 and the BeagleBone. The board level shifts serial lines from the BeagleBone to the VT100. The STP also allows the terminal to provide power to the BeagleBone Black.  He did notice some power glitches as the supply of the VT100 came up. This was solved with a standard TI TL77xx voltage supervisor chip. The hardest part of the entire design was the card edge connector for the STP. [Brendan] nailed the dimensions on the first try.  In the end [Brendan] was rewarded with a very clean installation that didn’t require any modification to a classic piece of hardware.

We should note that most PCB houses use Electroless Nickel Immersion Gold (ENIG) as their standard coating. This will work for a card edge connector that will be plugged in and removed a few times.  Cards that will be inserted and removed often (such as classic console cartridges) will quickly scrape the ENIG coating off. Electroplated Gold over Nickel is the classically accepted material for card edge connectors, however the process most likely is not going to come cheap in hobbyist quantities.

USB adapter for an old VT100 keyboard


Ah, the VT100, the first dumb terminal that was controlled with a microprocessor. This ancient beast from the late 70s is quite unlike the terminals you’d find from even five years after its vintage – the keyboard connects via a TRS quarter-inch jack – the electronic and code design of this terminal is a bit weird. [Seth] was up to the challenge of making this mechanical keyboard work as a standard USB device, so he created his own USB adapter.

On the little quarter-inch to USB adapter, [Seth] included an HD 6402 UART to talk to the keyboard, along with a Teensy dev board and a few bits of circuits stolen from DEC engineers. The protocol between the keyboard and terminal is a little weird – first the terminal sets a bit in a status word, then the keyboard scans all the key rows and columns in sequence before telling the terminal it’s done. Yes, this gives the VT100 full n-key rollover, but it’s just weird compared to even an IBM Model M keyboard that’s just a few years younger.

[Seth] finally completed his circuit and wired it up on a perfboard. Everything works just as it should, although a little key remapping was done to keep this keyboard adapter useful for Mac and Windows computers. It’s a wonderful bit of kit, and any insight we can get into the old DEC engineers is a wonderful read in any event.

Vidias below.

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