One Bit, One Instruction Discrete CPU

There is a certain benefit to being an early adopter. If you were around when Unix or MSDOS had a handful of commands, it wasn’t hard to learn. Then you learn new things as they come along. If you started learning Linux or Windows today, there’s a huge number of details you have to tackle. You have the same problem trying to learn CPU design. Grappling with the design of a 16-bit CPU with a straightforward data path is hard enough. Throw in modern superscalar execution, pipelining, multiple levels of microcode, speculative execution, and all the other features modern processors have and you’ll quickly find yourself lost in the details.

[Michai Ramakers] wanted to build an educational CPU and he took a novel approach. The transistor CPU uses only one instruction and operates on one bit at a time. Naturally, this leads to a small data path, which is a good thing if you’re only using discrete transistors. His website is a ground-up tutorial in building and using the tiny computer.

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Weird CPU

How many instructions does [agp.cooper’s] computer have? Just one. How many strip boards does it use? Apparently, 41 five 41-track boards. While being one shy from the answer to life, it is still a lot of boards for a single instruction. The high board count is due to the use of 1970’s vintage ICs including TTL parts, 2114 RAM chips, and 74S571 PROMs.

There are several different architectures for single instruction computers and [agp’s] uses what is technically at TTA (transfer-triggered architecture). That is, the one instruction is a move and the destination or source of the move determines the operation. For example, the Wierd CPU (that’s the name of it) has a P and Q register. If you load those registers and then the ADD register will contain the sum of the two numbers.

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Designing A Single Instruction Computer

Today’s computers are unimaginably complex, and so complicated it’s nearly impossible for anyone to comprehend everything a CPU can do in excruciating detail. It wasn’t always like this – the early CPUs of the 70s and 80s were relatively simple and can easily be recreated at the individual gate level. CPUs can be even simpler, as [Jack Eisenmann] demonstrates with a single instruction computer, the DUO Compact 2, made entirely out of 74-series logic chips and a bunch of memory.

[Jack] has a long history of building strange computers out of individual chips, including a TTL logic CPU and a significantly more complicated single instruction computer. The latest, though, is as simple as it gets. It’s just twenty chips, capable of calculating prime numbers, sorting strings, and everything else a computer is able to do.

With every one-instruction computer, there is the obvious question of what instruction this computer uses. For the DUO Compact 2 it’s a single instruction that accepts three arguments, A, B, and C. The instruction copies a byte from A to B, then jumps to the instruction at C. Is it even possible for a computer to add two numbers with this instruction? Yes, if you have massive look up tables stored in 2 Megabytes of Flash and 512 kB of RAM.

In the video below, [Jack] goes over how his tiny computer works and demonstrates prime number generation (it’s slow), string sorting (also slow), and displaying ’99 bottles of beer on the wall’ on the computer’s LCD. All the files to replicate this computer are available on [Jack]’s webpage, along with an emulator in case you don’t want to break out a breadboard for this one.

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Building a one-instruction computer

[Hasith] sent in this project where he goes through the process of designing a one instruction CPU in Verilog. It may not win a contest for the coolest build on Hack A  Day, but we really do appreciate the “applied nerd”  aspect of this build.

With only one instruction, an OISC is a lot simpler than the mess we have to deal with today. There are a few instructions that by themselves are Turing-complete (like Subtract and branch if negative, and Move). Designing an OISC with one of these instructions means it can also emulate a Turing machine.

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