Getting Started with Blinking Lights on Old Iron

If you ever go to a computer history museum, you’ll be struck by how bland most modern computers look. Prior to 1980 computers had lights and switches, and sometimes dials and meters. Some had switchboard-like wiring panels and some even had oscilloscope-like displays. There’s something about a machine with all those switches and lights and displays that gets your hacker juices flowing. Have you ever wanted to get started in retrocomputing? Is it difficult? Do you need a lot of money? That depends on what your goals are.

There are at least three ways you can go about participating in retrocomputing: You can pony up the money to buy actual antique computers, you can build or buy old computers recreated with anywhere from zero to one hundred percent of period-authentic components, or you can experiment with emulators that run on a modern computer. As a hybrid of the second and third option there are also emulations in FPGAs.

You can see that the first option can be very expensive and you will probably have to develop a lot of repair and restoration skills. Watching [Mattis Lind] twiddle the bits on an actual PDP-8 in the clip above is great, but you’ll need to work up to it. The two techniques which get you going without the original hardware don’t have to break the bank or even cost anything presuming you already have a PC.

Although some sneer at emulation, for some machines it is almost the only way to go. You couldn’t buy the original EDSAC, for example. It is also a good way to get started without a lot of expense or risk. But regardless of how you do it, there’s one thing in common: you have to know how to operate the thing.

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VCF East X: The Mega Mix

The Vintage Computer Festival East was last weekend, and now it’s time to wrap everything up. We’re going to start this off with a video of the biggest, most intolerable jerk on the planet walking around the boardwalk at Ashbury Park. Thanks to [Fran] for filming it.

That video, despite the wretched casting director, included the reveal of the PDP Straight-8, the 50-year-old minicomputer that was repaired and refurbished by [David Gesswein] just this year. You can see some pictures of that and more below, and a little more on [David]’s website.

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VCF East X: Minicomputing With The Raspberry Pi

The Vintage Computer Festival in Wall, New Jersey doesn’t just attract locals; [Oscar] came all the way from Switzerland to show off his PiDP-8/I. It’s a miniature minicomputer, emulated in SimH, with blinkenlights and toggle switches mounted to a Raspberry Pi Hat.

Although the PiDP-8 is emulating a machine with thousands of discrete transistors, the design is exceptionally simple. On the board is 92 LEDs, a bunch of diodes, 26 toggle switches, a driver chip, and that’s about it. All the multiplexing for the switches and LEDs is taken care of in software. On the Raspberry Pi side, [Oscar] is able to run FOCAL, OS/8, and, like a normal-sized PDP-8, can toggle in programs manually.

Instead of having connecting to the ribbon cables coming out of RK01 disk drives and DECtapes, [Oscar] is emulating those too. All the files that would reside on old Digital storage mediums are now stuffed into USB thumb drives. A USB hub is plugged into the Pi, and when one of these USB disk packs is plugged into the hub, loading an operating system or a program is just a matter of flicking a few toggle switches.

[Oscar] has been working hard to turn the PiDP-8 into a kit, and the word around the booths is that this will happen sometime this summer. The expected price for this kit is very interesting: somewhere between $100 and $150 USD. For that price, we’d expect someone to rig up an Arduino-based paper tape reader very quickly, perhaps this afternoon.

More pics and a video of the PiDP-8/I below.
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Retro Edition: VCF East X This Weekend

It’s mid-April and time once again for the Vintage Computer Festival East X. The X means 10. It’s a three-day weekend full of interesting people, cool tech, and computers you’ve only heard about. We’ll be there all three days, and if you’re in New York or are unable to pump your own gas (Oregon excluded), it’s a great way to spend the weekend.

The sessions for this Friday will include everything from chiptunes to retr0bright to emulating vintage computers on FPGAs. Sessions of note include our own [Bil Herd] giving a talk on system architecture. Think of this as a bunch of engineers in a room with a whiteboard. How could you not have fun with that. There will also be the first meeting of the Quarternet committee, headed up by [Jim Brain]. This session will be a discussion of implementing a vintage networking protocol across different models and different brands of vintage computers. Confused? It’s a, “two-bit solution for an eight-bit world.” That’s all we know, and I’m pretty sure that’s all anyone knows. It will be interesting.

Saturday and Sunday will feature an incredible number of exhibits that includes everything from Atari 8-bits, Hollerith cards, mainframes, an amateur radio station (KC1CKV) and somehow a Fairlight CMI. Since this is the 50th anniversary of the PDP-8, there will be a few of these ancient machines on display. A freshly restored Straight-8 will be up and working, as will an incredible emulation from hackaday.io.

Just because there are exhibits doesn’t mean the talks end on Friday. On Saturday the guest speaker will be [Brian Kernighan], the guy who literally wrote the book on C. Sunday will feature [Bob Frankston], co-developer of VisiCalc. There will be very important people here all weekend.

Even if vintage computers aren’t your thing, there’s still plenty of stuff to see at the venue. The InfoAge science center has technological curiosities stretching back a century, and recently they’ve rehabbed an old satellite dish and turned it into a radio telescope. Registration happens here, and if the last few paragraphs haven’t sold you on the event, you can check out [The Guru Meditation]’s VCF preview video below. We will, of course, be posting a lot of stuff from the event.

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Hackaday Retro Edition: Remaking the PDP 8/I With A Raspberry Pi

[Oscar] really likes the PDP-8s, with the extremely old school PDP-8/I being his favorite. If you haven’t checked the price on these recently, getting a real PDP-8/I is nigh impossible. However, after assembling a KIM-1 clone kit, an idea struck: what about building a modern PDP-8/I replica that looks like the real thing, but is powered by modern hardware. This would be fairly cheap to build, and has the added bonus of not weighing several hundred pounds.

The PiDP-8 is [Oscar]’s project to replicate the hardware of the 8/I in a modern format. Instead of hundreds of Flip Chips, this PDP-8 is powered by a Raspberry Pi running the SIMH emulator. The 40-pin GPIO connector on the Pi is broken out to 92 LEDs and 26 toggle switches on a large PCB. This setup gets [Oscar] a reasonable facsimile of the PDP-8/I, but he’s also going for looks too. He created an acrylic panel with artwork copied from an original 8/I  that mounts to the PCB and gives the entire project that beautiful late 60s / early 70s brown with harvest gold accent color scheme.

Since this emulated PDP-8/I is running on entirely new hardware, it doesn’t make much sense to haul out disk drives as big as a small child, tape drives, and paper tape readers. Instead, [Oscar] is putting everything on USB sticks. It’s a great solution to the problem of moving around files that are a few kilowords in size.

vt100normal[Oscar] says he’ll be bringing his PiDP to the Vintage Computer Festival East X in Wall, NJ, April 17-19. We’ll be there, and I’ve already offered [Oscar] the use of a VT-100 terminal. If you’re in the area, you should come to this event. It’s guaranteed to be an awesome event and you’re sure to have a great time. Since this is the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the PDP-8, there will be a half-dozen original PDP-8s set up, including a newly refurbished Straight-8 that came out of the RESISTORS.

Oh, if anyone knows how to connect a Pi to a VT100 (technically a 103), leave a note in the comments. Does it need the RTS/CTS?

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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