My Payphone Runs Linux

For the 20th anniversary of the Movie “Hackers” [Jamie Zawinski], owner of DNA Lounge in San Francisco, threw an epic party – screening the movie, setting up skating ramps and all that jazz. One of the props he put up was an old payphone, but he didn’t have time to bring it alive. The one thing he didn’t want this phone to do was to be able to make calls. A couple of weeks later, he threw another party, this time screening “Tank Girl” instead. For this gathering he had enough time to put a Linux computer inside the old payphone. When the handset is picked up, it “dials” a number which brings up a voice mail system that announces the schedule of events and other interactive stuff. As usual, this project looked simple enough to start with, but turned out way more complicated than he anticipated. Thankfully for us, he broke down his build in to bite sized chunks to make it easy for us to follow what he did.

This build is a thing of beauty, so let’s drill down into what the project involved:

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First Edition of German Computer Mag is a Blast from the Past

Every once in a while we get nostalgic for the old days of computing. Here, we’re getting nostalgic for a past that wasn’t even our own, but will probably bring a smile to all the German hackers out there. c’t magazine has its first issue available on their website (PDF, via FTP), and it’s worth checking out even if you can’t read a word of German.

ct-adIt’s dated November/December 1983, and you’re definitely hopping in the WABAC machine here. The cover image is a terminal computer project that you’re encouraged to build for yourself, and the magazine is filled with those characteristic early-computer-era ads, many of them for the physical keyboards that you’d need to make such a device. Later on, c’t would provide plans for a complete DIY PC with plotter, one of which we saw still running at the 2015 Berlin Vintage Computer Festival.

The issue is chock-full of code for you to type out into your own computer at home. If you didn’t have a computer, there are of course reviews of all of the popular models of the day; the TRS-80 Model 100 gets good marks. And if you need to buy a BASIC interpreter, there’s an article comparing Microsoft’s MBASIC with CBM’s CBASIC. A battle royale!

ct_mag_computer_bandOther hot topics include modifications to make your ZX81’s video output sharper, the hassle of having to insert a coded dongle into your computer to run some software (an early anti-piracy method), and even a computer-music band that had (at least) a Commodore 64 and a CBM machine in their groovy arsenal.

It’s no secret that we like old computers, and their associated magazines. Whether you prefer your PDP-11’s physical or virtual, we’ve got you covered here. And if your nostalgia leans more Anglophone, check out this Byte magazine cover re-shoot.

Macintosh Hard Drive Repair

The Macintosh II was a popular computer in the era before Apple dominated the coffee shop user market, but for those of us still using our Mac II’s you may find that your SCSI hard drive isn’t performing the way that it should. Since this computer is somewhat of a relic and information on them is scarce, [TheKhakinator] posted his own hard drive repair procedure for these classic computers.

The root of the problem is that the Quantum SCSI hard drives that came with these computers use a rubber-style bump stop for the head, which becomes “gloopy” after some time. These computers are in the range of 28 years old, so “some time” is relative. The fix involves removing the magnets in the hard drive, which in [TheKhakinator]’s case was difficult because of an uncooperative screw, and removing the rubber bump stops. In this video, they were replaced with PVC, but [TheKhakinator] is open to suggestions if anyone knows of a better material choice.

This video is very informative and, if you’ve never seen the inside of a hard drive, is a pretty good instructional video about the internals. If you own one of these machines and are having the same problems, hopefully you can get your System 6 computer up and running now! Once you do, be sure to head over to the retro page and let us know how you did!

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Vulcan 74: A Masterpiece of Retro Engineering

[Radical Brad] has played around with FPGAs, video signals, and already has a few astonishing projects of bitbanged VGA on his resume. Now he’s gone insane. He’s documenting a build over on the 6502.org forums of a computer with Amiga-quality graphics built out of nothing but a 65C02, a few SRAM chips, and a whole pile of logic chips.

The design goals for this project are to build a video game system with circa 1980 parts and graphics a decade ahead of its time. The video output is VGA, with 400×300 resolution, in glorious eight-bit color. The only chips in this project more complex than a shift register are a single 65c02 and a few (modern) 15ns SRAMs. it’s not a build that would have been possible in the early 80s, but the only thing preventing that would be the slow RAM chips of the era.

So far, [Radical] has built a GPU entirely out of 74-series logic that reads a portion of RAM and translates that to XY positions, colors, pixels, and VGA signals. There’s support for alpha channels and multiple sprites. The plan is to add sound hardware with support for four independent digital channels and 1 Megabyte of sample memory. It’s an amazingly ambitious project, and becomes even more impressive when you realize he’s doing all of this on solderless breadboards.

[Brad] will keep updating the thread on 6502.org until he’s done or dies trying. So far, it’s looking promising. He already has a bunch of Boing balls bouncing around a display. You can check out a video of that below.

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VCF East X: The Not Trashy Eighty

The lowly TRS-80 doesn’t get much love in most circles; it’s constantly overshadowed by the popularity of the Apple II or computers that had graphics that weren’t terrible. For [Mike Loewen]’s VCF exhibit, he’s turning his TRS-80 into something good with SD card disk drives and custom graphics adapters.

The -80 in question is a Model 4, the fancy all-in-one version that could run CP/M. The disk drives in this computer were replaced with half-height 5 1/4″ drives, the 200ns RAM was replaced with 100ns RAM and modified to get rid of the wait states, and a hard drive is emulated on a SD card adapter thanks to an add-on from [Ian Mavric].

[Ian] is somewhat prolific in the world of TRS-80s; he reverse engineered the original hi-res graphics board and reimplemented it with video RAM chips of a more modern vintage.

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VCF East X: The Quarternet Steering Committee

Today was the first day of the Vintage Computer Festival East X. As is the tradition, the first day was packed with talks and classes about various retrocomputing ephemera, with this year featuring a great talk from [David Riley] about 8-bit computer music, a class on system architecture from our own [Bil Herd] (video coming soon), and a talk about vintage teletypes. One of these talks was about creating new hardware: [Jim Brain]’s steering committee on a networking solution for vintage microcontrollers. It’s called Quarternet: a two-bit solution for an eight bit world.

While minicomputers are easily networkable, designed around multi-user operating systems, and have the hardware for a lot of networking hardware, 8-bit micros are the exact opposite. That doesn’t mean 8-bitters don’t have networking; you can get an Ethernet cart for a C64, and just about everything can connect to a BBS. [Jim]’s talk was about whittling down the use cases for the Quarternet to something that could be implemented easily, but still give the most capability.

During the talk, the audience settled on using a serial connection from the micro to the outside world; this makes sense, as everything has a serial port. A ‘lightweight API’ was suggested to take up the software side of the problem, but there wasn’t much agreement over what that API would actually do.

[Jim]’s idea is for a box that plugs into the serial port of any old microcomputer and would connect to the Internet somehow. Ethernet, WiFi, or even a modem isn’t out of the question here. That takes care of connecting to the Internet, but there’s also the question of the cooler side of networking – network drives, file sharing, and the like.

For this, [Jim] is imagining a box with a serial port on one end, and a network port on the other. In the middle would be a cartridge slot for any hardware imaginable. If you want to plug in an Apple II disk drive, just insert the right cartridge and you’re good to go. If you need network access to a Commodore 1541 drive, just insert another cartridge, and it’ll just work.

It’s an interesting idea, but [Jim] is really interested in getting even more feedback for a networking system for old microcomputers. If you have any ideas, leave a note for him in the comments.

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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