When you think about vintage computers from the 1970s, the first thing that should spring to mind are front panels loaded up with switches, LEDs, and if you’re really lucky, a lock with a key. Across all families of CPUs from the ’70s, you’ll find front panel setups for Z80s and 8080s, but strangely not the 6502. That’s not to say blinkenlights and panel switches for 6502-based computers didn’t exist, but they were astonishingly rare.
If something hasn’t been done, that means someone has to do it. [Alexander Pierson] built The Cactus, a 6502-based computer that can be controlled entirely through toggle switches and LEDs.
If you’re wondering why something like this hasn’t been built before, you only have to look at the circuitry of the 6502 CPU. The first versions of this chip were built with an NMOS process, and these first chips included bugs, undefined behavior, and could not be run with a stopped clock signal. These problems were fixed with the next chip spin using a CMOS process (which introduced new bugs), but the CMOS version of the 6502 would retain the contents of its registers with a stopped clock signal.
The specs for the Cactus computer are what you would expect from a homebrew 6502 system. The chip is a WDC 65C02S running at 1MHz, there’s 32k of RAM and a 16k EPROM, dual 6551s give serial access at various baud rates, and there are 16 bits of parallel I/O from a 65C22 VIA. The ROM is loaded up with OSI Basic. The real trick here is the front panel, though. Sixteen toggle switches allow the front panel operator to toggle through the entire address space, and eight flip switches can set any bit in the computer. Other controls include Run, Halt, Step, Examine, and Deposit, as you would expect with any front panel computer.
It’s a fantastic piece of work which I missed seeing at VCF East so I’m really glad [Alexander] made the trip between coasts. Cactus is truly something that hasn’t been done before. Not because it’s impossible, but simply because the state of the art technology from when the 6502 was new didn’t allow it. Now we have the chips, and the only limitation is finding someone willing to put in the work.