Reverse Engineering The Weather Channel’s Magic

For American readers of a certain age, Local on the 8s likely holds a special spot in your heart. The program, once a staple of The Weather Channel, would provide viewers with a text and eventually graphical depiction of their local forecast set to some of the greatest smooth jazz ever heard outside of an elevator. In the days before smartphones, or even regular Internet access for that matter, these broadcasts were a critical part of planning your day in the 1980s through to the early 2000s.

Up until recently the technical details behind these iconic weather reports were largely unknown, but thanks to the Herculean efforts of [techknight], the fascinating engineering that went into the WeatherSTAR 4000 machines that pumped out current conditions and Shakin’ The Shack from CATV distribution centers all over the US for decades is now being documented and preserved. The process of reversing the hardware and software has actually been going on for the last couple of years, but all those juicy details are now finally going to be available on the project’s Hackaday.IO page.

It all started around Christmas of 2018, when an eBay alert [techknight] had configured for the WeatherSTAR 4000 finally fired off. His offer was accepted, and soon he had the physical manifestation of Local on the 8s in his own hands. He’d reasoned that getting the Motorola MC68010 machine working would be like poking around in a retrocomputer, but it didn’t take long for him to realize he’d gotten himself into a much larger project than he could ever have imagined.

The trouble is that the WeatherSTAR 4000 was designed to get all its software as part of the satellite downlink that provided the actual weather data. The machine has no mass storage, so all of its software was stored in RAM. Once the box was switched off, all that precious code was lost forever.

Despite his best efforts [techknight] was unable to find anyone who’d ever managed to capture the data stream going into one of these boxes, and as this generation of hardware hasn’t been used since 2014, it’s not as if he can break out an SDR and record it himself. To make a long story short: he was on his own.

What followed is easily some of the most impressive reverse engineering work we’ve ever seen. It took months of painstaking labor just to buzz out the boards and create new schematics, and after that he still had to wrap his head around the PALs and early FPGAs scattered throughout the machine without so much as a scrap of original documentation.

At the time of this writing, [techknight] is still writing up the earliest phases of the reverse engineering process with a new post or two each day on the project page. It’s going to be awhile before he covers everything, especially considering how deep he dives into each post, but we’re certainly not complaining. If you’d like to see his current process, he’s always showing the revived WeatherSTAR off on social media.

If you just wanted to relive those Local on the 8s memories, naturally you’d be better off with a Raspberry Pi and a bit of Python. But there’s something to be said for having the original hardware, and as he now has the distinction of owning what’s likely the only operational WeatherSTAR 4000 on the planet, we’re sure [techknight] doesn’t regret the time he poured into this incredible project.

[Thanks to trhodes for the tip.]

25 thoughts on “Reverse Engineering The Weather Channel’s Magic

  1. This whole article seems to be based on the entirely flawed premise that [techknight] is the only person working on reverse-engineering the WeatherSTAR 4000. This is not so. There is also a work-in-progress MAME driver for the machine.

    I’m not sure if external links in comments will get my comment auto-modded, so feel free to pop over to the MAMEdev organization on Github, and take a peek at the MAME repo in src/mame/drivers/wxstar4000.cpp.

    1. That MAME driver was because of me. Please wait for all the facts as It will be explained later in the blog when I get more and more posts in. The blog is far from complete. Also, I gave Arbee37 my documentation to help develop a MAME driver so I could use it for developing and testing new software for the 4000, but unfortunately it didn’t pan out. It isnt easy to debug on a machine you have no debug ports or ICE for.

        1. i suppose the sky is the limit, but you would need an input card for that, and also maybe a mass-storage controller at that point. i mean, consider it basically a 68K single board computer environment with simple graphics.

        2. Maybe with some serious ROM hacking and patching, you could get Mac OS to run on it, or maybe GEM or something that is 68K native, but patching everything needed as a “BSP” for this particular machine. Might be something fun to do.

      1. Wow MAME swallowed MESS, I was thinking why is this part of MAME and not MESS. I guess that is what happens when you do not update your MAME files in over a decade.

        ref: “MAME (originally stood for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) absorbed the sister-project MESS (Multi Emulator Super System)” – https://github.com/mamedev/mame

    2. Actually, I am mistaken. I had to go back and re-read my conversation with Arbee. I wanted to have him work on the MAME side so I could attempt to re-implement the original ROM code including the original bootloader, and more importantly, the vector rendering routines left in ROM. But I ended up writing my own.

      He completed the MAME driver up to a certain point, but I never carried it over the finish line as things didn’t work out as I was focused more on development and getting the actual machine running all the way.

    3. You mean the file that was literally credited to Techknight when it was added to the repo, years after he started his reverse engineering project? That’s the one that proves he shouldn’t be considered an expert on the subject?

  2. I am living for this, the Weather Star 4000 was an amazing weather presentation machine, and it’s awesome to see it be preserved and restored to a working state. Thank you techknight for preserving the childhood of many 90s kids :)

  3. Hold up, you have a huge highly hackable platform already setup in your living room but your afraid to even attempt to lower it once!? Day one of buying the house I would be getting that working. Or if it’s really such an eyesore taking it out.

  4. Ocean Shores Coast Communications may still be using one of theses… Most outdated, slowest, highest priced ISP and Cable provider I’ve ever had the displeasure of dealing with. As far as I could tell they bought all their equipment in the early 2000s (at best) and never upgraded. For the sake of the residents there, I hope they have finally upgraded by now.

  5. Man, I gotta think we could get ahold of someone at TWC/IBM that worked on this. Even if it isn’t ‘official’ support… I’m going to spam every EE that lists TWC as their employer on LinkedIn

    1. Well I tried to get in touch with as many as I could. The key players have long since retired, and the project manager Alan doesn’t remember alot of it, and when he left TWC he left his notes and things behind.

      Probably requires someone currently working at TWC to retrieve some notes out of their archive. Assuming they keep any of them.

  6. Wow! This very cool! I am an 80s kid and smooth jazz still makes me think of those winter mornings when Weather Channel would be on waiting to find out if we got a snow day! Lot of nostalgia there!

  7. The effort to recover and the possibility of bringing these computers back to life is mind blowing. I do own a weatherstar jr, ws4000, intellistar and intellistar i2hd. Ived had them for a while. The i2hd had the hard drives but was reformatted. I tried to use recovery software to see if I can get some kinda image to recover. Unfortunately the hard drives came from a different computer. I will be watching your work closely in hopes that maybe you can find a way to revive this puppy and post some how to for others that have these computers also. In short what I’m trying to say is help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. Your my only hope.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.