Hacking the Digital and Social System

When you live in a totalitarian, controlled and “happy” society, and you want to be a hacker, you have to hack the social system first. Being just an engineer doesn’t cut it, you have to be a hypocrite, dissident and a smuggler at the same time. That’s the motto of my personal story, which starts in Yugoslavia, and ends in Serbia. No, I didn’t move, I’m still in Belgrade, only the political borders have changed.

Half a century ago, when I was in elementary school, I discovered the magical world of HAM radio. I became a member of two amateur radio clubs, passed all exams and got my licence and callsign, which was YU1OPC. I was delighted, but after five years, the party was over. What happened? Well, one day the police paid a visit to all registered owners of CB Band equipment and simply took that equipment away. No one knows why they did it, but it was probably off the books, as we never got any written confirmation, and no one ever saw their equipment again.

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Colorizer for ZX81 clone

[danjovic] is a vintage computer enthusiast and has several old computers in his collection. Among them are a couple of TK-85 units – a ZX81 clone manufactured by Microdigital Eletronica in Brazil. The TK-85 outputs a monochrome video output. And when [danjovic] acquired a SyncMaster 510 computer monitor, he went about building a circuit to “colorise” the output from the ZX81 clone (Portuguese translation).

The SyncMaster 510 supports 15kHz RGB video refresh rate, so he thought it ought to be easy to hook it up to the TK-85, which internally has the video and composite sync signals available. So, if he could lower the amplitude of the video signal to 0.7Vpp, using resistors, and connect this signal to one of the primary colors on the monitor, for example green, then the screen should have black characters with a green background.

DSCN5584-thumbBefore he could do any of this, he first had to debug and fix the TK-85 which seemed to be having several age related issues. After swapping out several deteriorating IC sockets, he was able to get it running. He soldered wires directly to one of the logic chips that had the video and sync signals present on them, along with the +5V and GND connections and hooked them up to a breadboard. He then tested his circuit consisting of the TTL multiplexer, DIP switches and resistors. This worked, but not as expected, and after some digging around, he deduced that it was due to the lack of the back porch in the video signal. From Wikipedia, “The back porch is the portion of each scan line between the end (rising edge) of the horizontal sync pulse and the start of active video. It is used to restore the black level (300 mV.) reference in analog video. In signal processing terms, it compensates for the fall time and settling time following the sync pulse.”

To implement the back porch, he referred to an older hack he had come across that involved solving a similar problem in the ZX81. Eventually, it was easily implemented by an RC filter and a diode. With this done, he was now able to select any RGB value for foreground and background colors. Finally, he built a little PCB to house the multiplexer, DIP switches and level shifting resistors. For those interested, he’s also documented his restoration of the TK-85 over a four-part blog post.

Hackaday Retro Edition: TRS Wiki

1977 was a special year for computing history; this year saw the release of the 8085 following the release of the Z80 a year before. Three companies would launch their first true production computers in 1977: Apple released the Apple II, Commodore the PET 2001, and Tandy / Radio Shack the TRS-80 Model I. These were all incredibly limited machines, but at least one of them can still be used to browse Wikipedia.

[Pete]’s TRSWiki is a Wikipedia client for the TRS-80 Model I that is able to look up millions of articles in only uppercase characters, and low resolution (128×48) graphics. It’s doing this over Ethernet with a very cool Model I System Expander (MISE) that brings the lowly Trash-80 into the modern era.

The MISE is capable of booting from CF cards, driving an SVGA display and connecting to 10/100 Ethernet. Connecting to the Internet over Ethernet is one thing, but requesting and loading a web page is another thing entirely. There’s not much chance of large images or gigantic walls of text fitting in the TRS-80’s RAM, so [Pete] is using a proxy server on an Amazon Web Services box. This proxy is written in Java, but the code running on the TRS-80 is written entirely in Z80 assembly; not bad for [Pete]’s first project in Z80 assembly.

vt100normal The Hackaday Retro Edition is our celebration of old computers doing something modern, in most cases loading the old, no CSS or Javascript version of our site.

If you have an old computer you’d like featured, just load up the retro site, snap some pictures, have them developed, and send them in.

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: Old Computers, New Games


While the vintage computer festival in Wall, NJ had just about every vintage app you could imagine – multiple varities of *NIXes, pre-Zork Dungeon, BASIC interpreters of all capabilities, and just about every game ever released for 8-bit Commodore systems – there was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a distinct lack of modern programs written for these retro systems. Yes, despite there being people still curled up to keyboards and writing games for vintage systems, modern software was a strange oddity last weekend.

There were two wonderful exceptions, however. The first was Fahrfall, a game for the TRS-80 Color Computer. We’ve seen Fahrfall before when [John Linville] wrote it for the 2012 RetroChallenge Winter Warmup. The game itself is a re-imagining of Downfall for the Atari Jaguar, with the graphics scaled down immensely. The basic idea of the game is to jump down, ledge to ledge, on a vertically scrolling screen. Hit the walls or the bottom, and you’re dead. It’s a great game that probably would have sold well had it been a contemporary release.

Next up is a rather impressive port of Flappy Bird for the TI-99. The video does not do this game justice, although part of that might just be the awesome Amiga monitor used for the display. This game was brought in by [Jeff Salzman] of Vintage Volts who isn’t the author of the game. Honestly, the video doesn’t do the graphics any justice. It really is a great looking port that’s just as addictive as the Android/iDevice original.

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Building a new motherboard for a TRS-80


The TRS-80 Model 100 was an amazing piece of kit when it was released. Able to run for a week with just four AA batteries and smaller than some laptops today, this portable version of the TRS-80 saw action with war correspondents covering the Falklands invasion. A pedigree a MacBook Pro will never be able to live up to, it seems.

[Hudson] picked up a non-functioning Model 100 with the express goal of replacing the 30-year-old electronics inside with an updated motherboard – and also pull up our retro site in the process. Armed with a Teensy++, [Hudson] pried open his ancient computer and set to work interfacing the display and keyboard to his AVR dev board.

The LCD display in the Model 100 has a resolution of 240×64, driven by ten Hitachi HD44102 display drivers. Each of these display drivers are responsible for the pixels in a 50×32 rectangle on the screen and are interfaced with a 30-bit wide bus consisting of chip select lines, and 8-bit data bus, and a few other random control lines. [Hudson] plugged this 30 pin header into his Teensy++ and after a bit of ingenuity regarding the strange electrical requirements of the LCD, was able to control every pixel on this 30-year-old display.

The next order of business was interfacing the keyboard with a modern microcontroller. The keyboard is laid out in a normal matrix, but with a few oddities: characters like ~, |, and curly brackets aren’t present on the Model 100. After working these problems out, [Hudson] set to work on a VT100 terminal emulator. This allowed him to run vi and lynx, enabling him to pull up the Hackaday retro site in a wonderful forty-column text mode.

Future improvements to this redesign include designing a proper PCB to replace the current protoboard design. The original Model 100 included a text editor and programming language, and adding a Forth implementation isn’t out of [Hudson]’s grasp. It’s an awesome build, and an excellent improvement that will allow [Hudson]’s Trash-80 to see another 30 years of use.

Giving the TRS-80 CoCo a 44 color display

As a relic of the early 80s, the TRS-80 Color Computer couldn’t display very many colors. By default, the CoCo could only display 8 colors on the screen at a time, but [John] figured out a way to increase the number of colors displayed using a very simple trick that surprisingly isn’t found in original CoCo games.

The TRS-80 Color Computer uses a Motorola 6847 video display generator to produce color graphics on its display. There are several graphics modes available to CoCo programmers, including a high-resolution black and white mode, and two four-color modes using red, green, blue, and yellow or buff, cyan, magenta, and orange.

These color palettes are extremely limiting, and usually switching between these modes produces a lot of flicker. [John] figured out if he switched the color pallets every 1/60th of a second (i.e. during the vertical blanking interval), he could display 44 colors on the CoCo.

It’s a clever little hack to increase the color palette of the CoCo, and in our opinion should be in the running for winning this season’s Retrochallenge. Sadly, [John] is judge for the Retrochallenge this time around, so he’ll have to settle for earning a Hackaday merit badge.