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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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?