Big Beautiful Vintage Computers, And Where To Find Them

An IBM 3380E disk storage system, 5 gigabyte capacity.

[Ken Shirriff] recently shared some pictures and a writeup from his visit to the Large Scale Systems Museum, a remarkable private collection of mainframes and other computers from the 1970s to the 1990s. Housed in a town outside Pittsburgh, it contains a huge variety of specimens including IBM mainframes and desk-sized minicomputers, enormous disk and tape storage systems, and multiple 90s-era Cray supercomputers. It doesn’t stop there, either. Everything through the minicomputer revolution leading to personal home computers is present, and there are even several Heathkit HERO robot kits from the 80s. (By the way, we once saw a HERO retrofitted with wireless and the ability to run Python.)

Something really special is that many of the vintage systems are in working order, providing insight into how these units performed and acted. The museum is a private collection and is open only by appointment but they encourage interested parties not to be shy. If a trip to the museum isn’t for you, [Ken] has some additional photos from his visit here for you to check out.

How A Secret Gaming Scene Emerged In Communist East Germany

During the late 1980s, a gaming scene emerged in East Germany just before the fall of communism. Teenagers gathered in buildings like the “House of Young Talents” (HdjT), originally Palais Podewils, to watch and play Commodore 64 games. There were 20 similar clubs in Berlin alone, sometimes with more than 70 people crowded into a single room. Above all, the computers they were in possession of were all made in the West.

At a point in time when loyalties were frequently questioned, the club of self-proclaimed “freaks” soon attracted the attention of the Stasi, GDR (East Germany) intelligence agents who kept close tabs on the group. As one Stasi agent warned:

Given that there are also members within the interest groups or computer clubs with a verifiably negative attitude toward the socialist state and social order, there is a potential danger that the interest groups or computer clubs will go in a negative direction.

Domestically produced computers – the KC 85 from VEB Mikroelektronik Wilhelm Pieck Mühlhausen and the KC 87 from VEB Robotron – did not have the quality of C128 and C64s from Commodore. Surprisingly, even while microelectronics remained on the list of embargoed products imported to East Germany, C64s managed to make their way into the state. The GDR customs officials didn’t have any problem with Western imported hardware – what they were worried about was the software.

By the end of the 80s, modern data traffic over telephone lines had arrived in East Germany, causing fear that software would soon be disseminated without the need of a physical medium. For the gamers of GDR, however, many didn’t even have access to a phone line. They just wanted to go to computer clubs to swap software. Since computer games from the West were only available in government-run Intershop stores and not in normal shops, teenagers had to rely on the computer clubs to access these games. Games like Frogger and Rambo would be copied to cheaper cassette tapes – it wouldn’t even be violating the saw law since software was not protected by copyright within the country.

A few politically charged games – “Raid Over Moscow” and “Kremlin” – were forbidden to ensure that the HdjT wouldn’t be shut down. Towards the end of the GDR, the Stasi desperately tried to gain control of games “relating to the increasing activities of the political opponent”, but by this point the political situation was already heading towards the fall of the Wall. [Stefan Paubel], founder of the HdjT reflected that he was disappointed the Stasi didn’t try harder to report on the computer clubs.

They had everything critical in the reports: Swapping software, a complete list of all the games glorifying war and computers from the West.

It appeared that microelectronics were sacred to the GDR, since officials were trying to get more young people to engage with computers. The regime’s concern for their reputation led them to prioritize other forms of surveillance than technology. For a while after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the computer club continued to exist. It wasn’t until August 1990, two months before reunification, that the remaining members decided to dissolve the club.

[Thanks to Frank for the tip!]

Turn Your Old-school CRT Into A YouTube Media Player

Ever wish you could enjoy modern conveniences like YouTube in a retro world of CRTs and late 20th century graphics?

[Johannes Spreitzer] happened to find an old VIENNASTAR CRT (cathode-ray tube television) made by the Austrian brand Kapsh at a flea market. The CRT dates back to 1977 and uses just RF input, making it useless as a modern television set since most TV stations nowadays broadcast primarily in digital.

However, HDMI-to-RF transmitters do exist, making it possible to convert HDMI signals to RF or coaxial cable output to replace an antenna signal. What [Spreitzer] did next was to plug in a Chromcast and essentially convert the CRT into an old-school monitor. You can see some of the trippy graphics in the video below – the video samples shown fit the retro aesthetic, but I’m sure there’s video combinations that would seem pretty out of place.

HDMI-to-RF adapters are pretty easy to pick up at a hardware store, and they allow you to project videos onto specific channels on a CRT. Needless to say, they don’t work the other way around, although since there are still televisions that only pick up RF broadcasts, coaxial to HDMI adapters do exist.

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Repurposing A Toy Computer From The 1990s

Our more youthful readers are fairly likely to have owned some incarnation of a VTech educational computer. From the mid-1980s and right up to the present day, VTech has been producing vaguely laptop shaped gadgets aimed at teaching everything from basic reading skills all the way up to world history. Hallmarks of these devices include a miserable monochrome LCD, and unpleasant membrane keyboard, and as [HotKey] found, occasionally a proper Z80 processor.

It started, as such things often do, with eBay. [HotKey] found that the second hand market is flooded with these decades-old educational gadgets, often selling for just a few bucks. As it turns out, children of the smartphone and tablet era don’t seem terribly interested in a “laptop” from 1991. At any rate, he ordered about a dozen different models and started tearing into them to see what made them tick.

He found that the VTech machines of around 20+ years old were using the Z80 processor, and what’s more, they shared a fairly standardized external cartridge interface for adding additional software or saving data. Upon attempting to dump some data from the cartridge port, [HotKey] discovered that it was actually connected to the computer’s main bus. He realized that with a custom designed cartridge, it should be able to take over the system and have it run his own code.

After more than a year of tinkering and talking to other hackers in the Z80 scene, [HotKey] has made some impressive headway. He’s not only created a custom cartridge that lets him load new code and connect to external devices, but he’s also added support for a few VTech machines to z88dk so that others can start writing their own C code for these machines. So far he’s created some very promising proof of concept programs such as a MIDI controller and serial terminal, but ultimately he hopes to create a DOS or CP/M like operating system that will elevate these vintage machines from simple toys to legitimate multi-purpose computers.

We’ve seen VTech hardware hacked in the past, but it’s generally been focused on the company’s more recent hardware such as the Linux-powered InnoTab. It will be interesting to see if these educational toys can fulfill some hacker’s dreams of having a cheap and portable box for Z80 tinkering.

Extreme Refurbishing: Amiga Edition

The last Amiga personal computer rolled off the assembly line in 1996, well over 20 years ago. Of course, they had their real heyday in the late 80s, so obviously if you have any around now they’ll be in need of a little bit of attention. [Drygol] recently received what looks like a pallet of old Amiga parts and set about building this special one: The Vampiric Amiga A500.

The foundation of this project was a plain A500 with quite a bit of damage. Corrosion and rust abounded inside the case, as well as at least one animal. To start the refurbishment, the first step was to remove the rust from the case and shields by an electrochemical method. From there, he turned his attention to the motherboard and removed all of the chips and started cleaning. Some of the connectors had to be desoldered and bathed in phosphoric acid to remove rust and corrosion, and once everything was put back together it looks almost brand new.

Of course, some other repairs had to be made to the keyboard and [Drygol] put a unique paint job on the exterior of this build (and gave it a name to match), but it’s a perfect working Amiga with original hardware, ready to go for any retrocomputing enthusiast. He’s no stranger around here, either; he did another extreme restoration of an Atari 800 XL about a year ago.

The Monotron, A Rusty Retrocomputer

For many people, a retrocomputer is a classic machine from the past lovingly brought back to working order. But for some, the idea of a retrocomputer is wider than that, encompassing modern hardware that delivers to feel like a device from the past.

The Monotron from [Jonathan Pallant] is one such computer. It’s definitely a retrocomputer such as you might have found in the 1980s, but it’s running on a much more modern Tiva-C TI Launchpad dev board sporting an ARM Cortex M4.

The platform has been created entirely in Rust, and emulates what would have been a rather desirable machine in the early 1980s. With an 800×600 pixel 8-colour VGA display interface, 32k of RAM, and mono 8-bit audio, it already has a few simple demos and games running upon it. [Jonathan Pallant] has given more than one talk on its design and capabilities, we’ve placed one of them as a video below the break. There is even a PCB available which adds all the ports as well as a micro SD card slot for program storage.

We like the Monotron, and we look forward to seeing it develop. It’s an exciting time for retrocomputig with projects such as the RC2014 Z80 machine and the Gigatron TTL RISC processor, but is there space for an emulated one such as this? We hope so.

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Review: The RC2014 Micro Single-Board Z80 Retrocomputer

At the end of August I made the trip to Hebden Bridge to give a talk at OSHCamp 2019, a weekend of interesting stuff in the Yorkshire Dales. Instead of a badge, this event gives each attendee an electronic kit provided by a sponsor, and this year’s one was particularly interesting. The RC2014 Micro is the latest iteration of the RC2014 Z80-based retrocomputer, and it’s a single-board computer that strips the RC2014 down to a bare minimum. Time to spend an evening in the hackerspace assembling it, to take a look!

It’s An SBC, But Not As You Know It!

The kit contents
The kit contents

The kit arrives in a very compact heat-sealed anti-static packet, and upon opening was revealed to contain the PCB, a piece of foam carrying the integrated circuits, a few passives, and a very simple getting started and assembly guide. The simplicity of the design becomes obvious from the chip count, there’s the Z80 itself, a 6850 UART, 27C512 ROM, 62256 RAM, 74HCT04 for clock generation, and a 74HCT32 for address decoding. The quick-start is adequate, but there is also a set of more comprehensive online instructions (PDF) available.

I added chip sockets and jumpers to my kit.
I added chip sockets and jumpers to my kit.

Assembly of a through-hole kit is hardly challenging, though this one is about as densely-packed as it’s possible to make a through-hole kit with DIP integrated circuits. As with most through-hole projects, the order you pick is everything: resistors first, then capacitors, reset button and crystal, followed by integrated circuits.

I’m always a bit shy about soldering ICs directly to a circuit board so I supplemented my kit with sockets and jumpers. The jumpers are used to select an FTDI power source and ROM addresses for Grant Searle’s ROM BASIC distribution or Steve Cousins’ SCM 1.0 machine code monitor, and the kit instructions recommended hard-wiring them with cut-off resistor wires. There was no row of pins for the expansion bus because this kit was supplied without the backplane that’s a feature of the larger RC2014 kits, but it did have a set of right-angle pins for an FTDI serial cable.

Your Arduino Doesn’t Have A Development Environment On Board!

Having assembled my RC2014 Mini and given it a visual inspection it was time to power it up and see whether it worked. Installing the jumper for FTDI power, I attached my serial cable and plugged it into a USB port.

A really nice touch is that the Micro has the colours for the serial cable wires on the reverse side of the PCB, taking away the worry of getting it the wrong way round. A quick screen /dev/ttyUSB0 115200 to get a serial terminal from a bash prompt, hit the reset button, and I was rewarded with a BASIC interpreter. My RC2014 Micro worked first time, and I could straight away give it BASIC commands such as PRINT "Hello World!" and be rewarded with the expected output.

The SCM ROM monitor.
The SCM ROM monitor.

So I’ve built a little Z80 single board computer, and with considerably less work than that required for the fully modular version of the RC2014. Its creator Spencer tells me that the Micro was originally designed as a bargain-basement RC2014 as a multibuy for workshops and similar activities, being very similar to his RC2014 mini board but without provision for a Pi Zero terminal and a few other components. It lacks the extra hardware required for a more comprehensive operating system such as CP/M, so I’m left with about as minimal an 8-bit computer as it’s possible to build using parts available in 2019. My question then is this: What can I do with it?

So. What Can I Do With An 8-bit SBC?

My first computer was a Sinclair ZX81, how could it possibly compare this small kit that was a giveaway at a conference? Although the Sinclair included a black-and-white TV display interface, tape backup interface, and keyboard, the core computing power was not too far different in its abilities from this RC2014 Micro — after all, it’s the same processor chip. It was the platform that introduced a much younger me to computing, and straight away I devoured Sinclair BASIC and then went on to write machine code on it. It became a general-purpose calculation and computing scratchpad for repetitive homework due to the ease of BASIC programming, and with my Maplin 8255 I/O port card I was able to use it in the way a modern tech-aware kid might use an Arduino.

The RC2014 Micro is well placed to fill all of those  functions as a BASIC and machine code learning platform on which to get down to the hardware in a way you simply can’t on most modern computers, and though the Arduino represents a far more sensible choice for hardware interfacing there is also an RC2014 backplane and I/O board available for the Micro’s expansion bus should you wish to have a go. Will I use it for these things? It’s certainly much more convenient than its full-sized sibling, so it’s quite likely I’ll be getting my hands dirty with a little bit of Z80 code. It’s astounding how much you can forget in 35 years!

The RC2014 Micro can be bought from Spencer’s Tindie store, with substantial bulk discounts for those workshop customers. If you want the full retrocomputer experience it’s a good choice as it provides about as simple a way into Z80 hardware and software as possible. The cost of simplicity comes in having no non-volatile storage and in lacking the hardware to run CP/M, but it has to be borne in mind that it’s the bottom of the RC2014 range. For comparison you can read our review of the original RC2014, over which we’d say the chief advantage of the Micro is its relative ease of construction.