A PDP-11 On A Chip

If you entered the world of professional computing sometime in the 1960s or 1970s there is a high probability that you would have found yourself working on a minicomputer. These were a class of computer smaller than the colossal mainframes of the day, with a price tag that put them within the range of medium-sized companies and institutions rather than large corporations or government-funded entities. Physically they were not small machines, but compared to the mainframes they did not require a special building to house them, or a high-power electrical supply.

A PDP-11 at The National Museum Of Computing, Bletchley, UK.
A PDP-11 at The National Museum Of Computing, Bletchley, UK.

One of the most prominent among the suppliers of minicomputers was Digital Equipment Corporation, otherwise known as DEC. Their PDP line of machines dominated the market, and can be found in the ancestry of many of the things we take for granted today. The first UNIX development in 1969 for instance was performed on a DEC PDP-7.

DEC’s flagship product line of the 1970s was the 16-bit PDP-11 series, launched in 1970 and continuing in production until sometime in the late 1990s. Huge numbers of these machines were sold, and it is likely that nearly all adults reading this have at some time or other encountered one at work even if we are unaware that the supermarket till receipt, invoice, or doctor’s appointment slip in our hand was processed on it.

During that over-20-year lifespan of course DEC did not retain the 74 logic based architecture of the earliest model. Successive PDP-11 generations featured ever greater integration of their processor, culminating by the 1980s in the J-11, a CMOS microprocessor implementation of a PDP-11/70. This took the form of two integrated circuits mounted on a large 60-pin DIP ceramic wafer. It was one of these devices that came the way of [bhilpert], and instead of retaining it as a curio he decided to see if he could make it work.

The PDP-11 processors had a useful feature: a debugging console built into their hardware. This means that it should be a relatively simple task to bring up a PDP-11 processor like the J-11 without providing the rest of the PDP-11 to support it, and it was this task that he set about performing. Providing a 6402 UART at the address expected of the console with a bit of 74 glue logic, a bit more 74 for an address latch, and a couple of  6264 8K by 8 RAM chips gave him a very simple but functional PDP-11 on a breadboard. He found it would run with a clock speed as high as 11MHz, but baulked at a 14MHz crystal. He suggests that the breadboard layout may be responsible for this. Hand-keying a couple of test programs, he was able to demonstrate it working.

We’ve seen a lot of the PDP-11 on these pages over the years. Of note are a restoration of a PDP-11/04, this faithful reproduction of a PDP-11 panel emulated with the help of a Raspberry Pi, and an entire PDP-11 emulated on an AVR microcontroller. We have indeed come a long way.

Thanks [BigEd] for the tip.

Turning a Pi Into a PDP

There’s no better way to learn how to program a computer than assembly, and there’s no better way to do assembly than with a bunch of blinkenlights and switches. Therefore, the best way to learn programming is with a PDP-11. It’s a shame these machines are locked up in museums and the garages of very cool people, but you can build your own PDP-11 with a Raspberry Pi and just a few extra components.

[jonatron] built his own simulated version of the PDP-11 with a lot of LEDs, a ton of switches, and a few 16-bit serial to parallel ICs. Of course the coolest part of any blinkenlight simulator are the front panel graphics, and here [jonatron] didn’t skimp. He put those switches and LEDs on a piece of laser cut acrylic with a handsome PDP11 decal. The software comes with a load of compiler warnings and doesn’t run anything except for very simple machine code programs. That’s really all you can do with a bunch of toggle switches and lights, though.

If this project looks familiar, your memory does not deceive you. The PiDP-8/I was an entry in this year’s Hackaday Prize and ended up being one of the top projects in the Best Product category. We ran into [Oscar], the creator of the PiDP-8, a few times this year. The most recent was at the Hackaday SuperConferece where he gave a talk. He’s currently working on a replica of the king of PDPs, the PDP-11/70.

Video below.

Continue reading “Turning a Pi Into a PDP”

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.

Continue reading “Restoring a vintage PDP-11/04 computer”

Retro Edition: VCF East, April 17 – 19

Around this time last year we were planning our trip to the Vintage Computer Festival East in Wall, NJ. This year we’re doing it all over again, and according to the announcements coming out of the planning committee, it’s going to be a very, very cool event.

This year marks fifty years since the release of the PDP-8, regarded as the first commercially successful computer ever. The historic Straight-8 from the infamous RESISTORS has been restored over the past few months, and it’s going to be turned on again for the festival. There will also be a half a dozen other PDP-8s at the event, but these are 8/M, 8/E, and 8/L models and not constructed completely out of discrete diode transistor logic.

Keynote speakers include [Wesley Clark], designer of the LINC computer and [Bob Frankston], co-creator of Visicalc. There will, of course, be a ton of educational and historical sessions on Friday. Our own [Bil Herd] will be there talking about vintage microcomputer architectures along with a dozen other fascinating people talking about really interesting stuff

As far as exhibits go, there’s literally everything you could imagine when it comes to retro computers. There will of course be a fully restored and functional PDP Straight 8, along with PDP-11s, Apple Newtons, Ataris, Network gaming on C64s. Hollerith cards, VisiCalc, mainframes, teletypes, video toasters, an RTTY amateur radio station (KC1CKV), a flea market/consignment thing, and all sorts of retro goodies. Oh, a Fairlight CMI will also be there. I don’t know how they got that one.

More info for VCF East at the official site, Facebook, and Twitter. If you’re in the area and want to exhibit something really, really cool, there’s still room for more. If you want a better feel for what will be going down at VCF East, check out our megapost wrapup from last year.

Of course if New Jersey isn’t your thing and you live a few blocks down from Peachtree Avenue, Lane, or Street, VCF Southeast 3.0 will be held in Roswell, Georgia the first weekend in May.

Restoring A PDP-10 Console Panel

The PDP-10 was one of the first computers [Jörg] had gotten his hands on, and there are very, very few people that can deny the beauty of a panel full of buttons, LEDs, dials, and analog meters. When one of the front panels for a PDP-10 showed up on eBay, [Jörg] couldn’t resist; a purchase that would lead him towards repairing this classic console and making it functional again with a BeagleBone.

The console [Jörg] picked up is old enough to have voted for more than one Bush administration, and over the years a lot of grime has covered the beautiful acrylic panels. After washing the panel in a bathtub, [Jörg] found the dried panel actually looked worse, like an old, damaged oil painting. This was fixed by carefully scraping off the clear coat over two weeks; an important lesson in preserving these old machines. They’re literally falling apart, even the ones in museums.

With the front panel cleaned, [Jörg] turned his attention to the guts of this panel. The panel was wired up for LEDs, and each of the tiny flashlight bulbs in the pushbuttons were replaced. The panel was then connected to a BlinkenBone with a ton of wiring, and the SIMH simulator installed. That turns this console into a complete, working PDP-10, without sucking down kilowatts of power and heating up the room

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen [Jörg] with a BeagleBone and some old DEC equipment; earlier he connected the front panel of a PDP-11 variant to one of these adapters running the same software.

Hackaday Links: August 24, 2014


Remember those ‘cocktail’ arcade cabinets? The Ikea Lack table has existed for years, so why not make one into an arcade table? Raspberry Pi with RetroPie as the brains,  and an ancient 4:3 monitor as the display.

Old Unixes! Running on PDPs, Novas, and IBMs! Thanks to Simh, you can emulate these old machines. [Matt] put up a guide to getting Simh running on a Pi that includes running Unix V5 on an emulated PDP-11.

Ever wanted to run your own telecom? The folks at Toorcamp did just that, 50 lines, 10,000 feet of 1-pair, and 1,500 feet of 2-pair. There’s a facebook album of all the pics.

Remember last week when Sparkfun said they shipped 2000 Microviews without a bootloader? Make interviewed [Marcus Schappi], the guy behind the MicroView. There’s also a tutorial on how to fix the issue.

Barbie needs an exorcism.

Remember the [Lord Vetinari] clock from way back when? It’s a clock that ticks 86400 times a day, but the interval between each second is just slightly random and enough to drive people insane. Here’s a kit on Tindie that makes it pretty easy to build a Ventinari clock, or a variety of other clocks that are sufficiently weird. There’s also a martian clock that’s 39 minutes and 36 seconds longer than normal, perfect for the folks at JPL.

0x1f 0x000 IZO EMESS 1407981609

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.