[James] documented his work in great detail, and by doing so, took us on a journey through the inner workings of microprocessors. His monumental machine is now finished, and it’s the ultimate answer to how a processor – and pretty much everything that contains a processor – works.
How big is it ? For starters, the 8-bit adder module is about 300mm (a foot) long – and he’s using five of them. When fully complete, it will stretch 14m wide and stand 2m tall, filling a 30 sq.m room, consisting of seven individual frames that form the parts of the Megaprocessor.
The original plan was for nine frames but he’s managed to squeeze all parts in to seven, building three last year and adding the other four since then. Assembling the individual boards (gates), putting them together to form modules, then fitting it all on to the frames and putting in almost 10kms of cabling is a slow, painstaking job, but he’s been on fire last few months. He has managed to test and integrate the racks shown here and even run some code.
The Megaprocessor has a 16-bit architecture, seven registers, 256bytes of RAM and a questionable amount of PROM (depending on his soldering endurance, he says). It sips 500W, most of it going to light up all the LED’s. He guesses it weighs about half a ton. The processor uses up 15,300 transistors and 8,500 LED’s, while the RAM has 27,000 transistors and 2,048 LED’s. That puts it somewhere between the 8086 and the 68000 microprocessors in terms of number of transistors. He recently got around to calculating the money he’s spent on this to date, and it is notching up over 40,000 Quid (almost $60,000 USD)! You can read a lot of other interesting statistics on the Cost and Materials page.
With almost everything that contains a shred of automation relying on a microcontroller these days, it’s likely that you will own hundreds of microprocessors beside the obvious ones in your laptop or phone. Computing devices large and small have become such a part of the fabric of our lives that we cease to see them, the devices and machines they serve just work, and we get on with our lives.
It is sometimes easy to forget then how recent an innovation they are. If you were born in the 1960s for example, computers would probably have been something spoken in terms of the Space Race or science fiction, and unless you were lucky you would have been a teenager before seeing one in front of you.
Having seen such an explosive pace of development in a relatively short time, it has taken the historians and archivists a while to catch up. General museums have been slow to embrace the field, and specialist museums of computing are still relative infants in the heritage field. Computers lend themselves to interactivity, so this is an area in which the traditional static displays that work so well for anthropological artifacts or famous paintings do not work very well.
Tucked away next to a railway line behind an industrial estate in the city of Cambridge, UK, is one of the new breed of specialist computer museum. The Centre for Computing History houses a large collection of vintage hardware, and maintains much of it in a running condition ready for visitors to experiment with.
Finding the museum is easy enough if you are prepared to trust your mapping application. It’s a reasonable walk from the centre of the city, or for those brave enough to pit themselves against Cambridge’s notorious congestion there is limited on-site parking. You find yourself winding through an industrial park past tile warehouses, car-parts shops, and a hand car wash, before an unobtrusive sign next to a railway level crossing directs you to the right down the side of a taxi company. In front of you then is the museum, in a large industrial unit.
Pay your entrance fee at the desk, Gift Aid it using their retro green screen terminal application if you are a British taxpayer, and you’re straight into the exhibits. Right in front of you surrounding the café area is something you may have heard of if you are a Hackaday reader, a relatively recent addition to the museum, the Megaprocessor.
If we hadn’t already covered it in some detail, the Megaprocessor would be enough for a long Hackaday article in its own right. It’s a 16-bit processor implemented using discrete components, around 42,300 transistors and a LOT of indicator LEDs, all arranged on small PCBs laid out in a series of large frames with clear annotations showing the different functions. There is a whopping 256 bytes of RAM, and its clock speed is measured in the KHz. It is the creation of [James Newman], and his demonstration running for visitors to try is a game of Tetris using the LED indicators on the RAM as a display.
To be able to get so up close and personal with the inner workings of a computer is something few who haven’t seen the Megaprocessor will have experienced. There are other computers with lights indicating their innermost secrets such as the Harwell Dekatron, but only the Megaprocessor has such a clear explanation and block diagram of every component alongside all those LED indicators. When it’s running a game of Tetris it’s difficult to follow what is going on, but given that it also has a single step mode it’s easy to see that this could be a very good way to learn microprocessor internals.
The first room off the café contains a display of the computers used in British education during the 1980s. There is as you might expect a classroom’s worth of Acorn BBC Micros such as you would have seen in many schools of that era, but alongside them are some rarer exhibits. The Research Machines 380Z, for example, an impressively specified Z80-based system from Oxford that might not have the fame of its beige plastic rival, but that unlike the Acorn was the product of a company that survives in the education market to this day. And an early Acorn Archimedes, a computer which though you may not find it familiar you will certainly have heard of the processor that it debuted. Clue: The “A” in “ARM” originaly stood for “Acorn”.
The rarest exhibit in this froom though concerns another BBC Micro, this time the extended Master System. Hooked up to it is an unusual mass storage peripheral that was produced in small numbers only for this specific application, a Philips LaserDisc drive. This is one of very few surviving functional Domesday Project systems, an ambitious undertaking from 1986 to mark the anniversary of the Norman Domesday Book in which the public gathered multimedia information to be released on this LaserDisc application. Because of the rarity of the hardware this huge effort swiftly became abandonware, and its data was only saved for posterity in the last decade.
The main body of the building houses the bulk of the collection. Because this is a huge industrial space, the effect is somewhat overwhelming, as though the areas are broken up by some partitions you are immediately faced with a huge variety of old computer hardware.
The largest part of the hall features the museum’s display of home computers from the 1980s and early 1990s. On show is a very impressive collection of 8-bit and 16-bit micros, including all the ones we’d heard of and even a few we hadn’t. Most of them are working, turned on, and ready to go, and in a lot of cases their programming manual is alongside ready for the visitor to sit down and try their hand at a little BASIC. There are so many that listing them would result in a huge body of text, so perhaps our best bet instead is to treat you to a slideshow (click, click).
Beyond the home micros, past the fascinating peek into the museum’s loading bay, and there are a selection of arcade cabinets and then a comprehensive array of games consoles. Everything from the earliest Pong clones to the latest high-powered machines with which you will no doubt be familiar is represented, so if you are of the console generation and the array of home computers left you unimpressed, this section should have you playing in no time.
One might be tempted so far to believe that the point of this museum is to chart computers as consumer devices and in popular culture, but as you reach the back of the hall the other face of the collection comes to the fore. Business and scientific computing is well-represented, with displays of word processors, minicomputers, workstations, and portable computing.
On a pedestal in a Perspex box all of its own is something rather special, a MITS Altair 8800, and a rare example for UK visitors of the first commercially available microcomputer. Famously its first programming language was Microsoft BASIC, this machine can claim to be that from which much of what we have today took its start.
In the corner of the building is a small room set up as an office of the 1970s, a sea of wood-effect Formica with a black-and-white TV playing period BBC news reports. They encourage you to investigate the desks as well as the wordprocessor, telephone, acoustic coupler, answering machine and other period items.
The museum has a small display of minicomputers, with plenty of blinkenlight panels to investigate even if they’re not blinking. On the day of our visit one of them had an engineer deep in its internals working on it, so while none of them were running it seems that they are not just static exhibits.
Finally, at various points around the museum were cabinets with collections of related items. Calculators, Clive Sinclair’s miniature televisions, or the evolution of the mobile phone. It is these subsidiary displays that add the cherry to the cake in a museum like this one, for they are much more ephemeral than many of the computers.
This is one of those museums with so many fascinating exhibits that it is difficult to convey the breadth of its collection in the space afforded by a Hackaday article.
There is an inevitable comparison to be made between this museum and the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park that we reviewed last year. It’s probably best to say that the two museums each have their own flavours, while Bletchley has more early machines such as WITCH or their Colossus replica as well as minis and mainframes, the Centre for Computing History has many more microcomputers as well as by our judgement more computers in a running and usable condition. We would never suggest a one-or-the-other decision, instead visit both. You won’t regret it.
The Centre for Computing History can be found at Rene Court, Coldhams Road, Cambridge, CB1 3EW. They are open five days a week from Wednesday through to Sunday, and seven days a week during school holidays. They open their doors at 10 am and close at 5 pm, with last admissions at 4 pm. Entry is £8 for grown-ups, and £6 for under-16s. Under-5s are free. If you do visit and you are a UK tax payer, please take a moment to do the gift aid thing, they are after all a charity.
Every time we say “We’ve seen it all”, along comes a project that knocks us off. 60 year old [Mark Nesselhaus] likes to learn new things and he’s never worked with hardware at the gate level. So he’s building himself a 4-bit Computer, using only Diode-Transistor Logic. He’s assembling the whole thing on “card board” perf-board, with brass tacks for pads. Why — because he’s a thrifty guy who wants to use what he has lying around. Obviously, he’s got an endless supply of cardboard, tacks and Patience. The story sounds familiar. It started out as a simple 4-bit full adder project and then things got out of hand. You know he’s old school when he calls his multimeter an “analog VOM”!
It’s still work in progress, but he’s made a lot of it in the past year. [Mark] started off by emulating the 4-bit full adder featured on Simon Inns’ Waiting for Friday blog. This is the ALU around which the rest of his project is built. With the ALU done, he decided to keep going and next built a 4-to-16 line decoder — check out the thumbnail image to see the rats nest of jumbled wires. Next on his list were several flip flops — R-S, J-K and D types, which would be useful as program counters. This is when he bumped into problems with signal levels, timing and triggering. He decided to allow himself the luxury of adding one IC to his build — a 555 based clock generator. But he still needed some pulse shaping circuitry to make it work consistently.
[Mark] also built a finite-state-machine sequencer based on the work done by Rory Mangles TinyTim project. He finished building some multiplexers and demultiplexers, and it appears he may be using a whole bank of 14 wall switches for address, input and control functions. For the output display, he assembled a panel using LED’s recovered from a $1 Christmas light string. Something seems amiss with his LED driver, though — 2mA with LED on and >2.5mA with LED off. The LED appears to be connected across the collector and emitter of the PNP transistor. Chime in with your comments.
This build seems to be shaping along the lines of the Megaprocessor that we’ve swooned over a couple of times in the past. Keep at it, [Mark]!
Every few years, we hear about someone building a computer from first principles. This doesn’t mean getting a 6502 or Z80, wiring it up, and running BASIC. I’m talking about builds from the ground up, starting with logic chips or even just transistors.
[James Newman]’s 16-bit CPU built from transistors is something he’s been working on for a little under a year now, and it’s shaping up to be one of the most impressive computer builds since the days of Cray and Control Data Corporation.
The 10,000 foot view of this computer is a machine with a 16-bit data bus, a 16-bit address bus, all built out of individual circuit boards containing single OR, AND, XOR gates, decoders, multiplexers, and registers. These modules are laid out on 2×1.5 meter frames, each of them containing a schematic of the computer printed out with a plotter. The individual circuit modules sit right on top of this schematic, and if you have enough time on your hands, you can trace out every signal in this computer.
The architecture of the computer is more or less the same as any 16-bit processor. Three are four general purpose registers, a 16 bit program counter, a stack pointer, and a status register. [James] already has an assembler and simulator, and the instruction set is more or less what you would expect from a basic microprocessor, although this thing does have division and multiplication instructions.
The first three ‘frames’ of this computer, containing the general purpose registers, the state and status registers, and the ALU, are already complete. Those circuits are mounted on towering frames made of aluminum extrusion. [James] already has 32 bytes of memory wired up, with each individual bit having its own LED. This RAM display will be used for the Game of Life simulation once everything is working.
While this build may seem utterly impractical, it’s not too different from a few notable and historical computers. The fastest computer in the world from 1964 to ’69 was built from individual transistors, and had even wider busses and more registers. The CDC6600 was capable of running at around 10MHz, many times faster than the estimated maximum speed of [James]’ computer – 25kHz. Still, building a computer on this scale is an amazing accomplishment, and something we can’t wait to see running the Game of Life.
Thanks [aleksclark], [Michael], and [wulfman] for sending this in.