We don’t really think anyone in the Victorian era had a COSMAC Elf — the homebrew computer based around the RCA 1802 CPU. But if they did, it might have looked like [Daniel Ross’] steampunk recreation of the system that includes an appropriate-looking teletype device. You can see the thing in a series of videos, below. There are actually quite a few videos showing different parts of the system, along with several blog postings stretching back a few months.
A magic eye tube doesn’t look out of place in this build. We especially liked the glass tube displays and the speaker, although we thought the USS Enterprise looked out of place with the technology based on stone knives and bearskins, to paraphrase Mr. Spock. On the plus side, the VFD displays have the right glowing look, although a Nixie would have been pretty good there, too.
The videos don’t have much detail, but the blog posts do if you wanted to attempt something similar. Honestly, 1802 system design is pretty easy thanks to the its on-chip DMA that allows you to load memory from switches with no actual software like a monitor. The teletype started out life as a Remington #7 from around 1900, although another newer machine donated parts to get everything working. It is a testament to how well things were built then that it took as much abuse as it did and still has working parts.
We have a soft spot for the 1802 — it was a very good design for its time. We’ve even gone as far as to simulate it.
Collecting old CPUs and firing them up again is all the rage these days, but how do you know if they will work? For many of these ICs, which ceased production decades ago, sorting the good stuff from the defective and counterfeit is a minefield.
Testing old chips is a challenge in itself. Even if you can find the right motherboard, the slim chances of escaping the effect of time on the components (in particular, capacitor and EEPROM degradation) make a reliable test setup hard to come by.
Enter [Samuel], and the Universal Chip Analyzer (UCA). Using an FPGA to emulate the motherboard, it means the experience of testing an IC takes just a matter of seconds. Why an FPGA? Microcontrollers are simply too slow to get a full speed interface to the CPU, even one from the ’80s.
So, how does it actually test? Synthesized inside the FPGA is everything the CPU needs from the motherboard to make it tick, including ROM, RAM, bus controllers, clock generation and interrupt handling. Many testing frequencies are supported (which is helpful for spotting fakes), and if connected to a computer via USB, the UCA can check power consumption, and even benchmark the chip. We can’t begin to detail the amount of thought that’s gone into the design here, from auto-detecting data bus width to the sheer amount of models supported, but you can read more technical details here.
The Mojo v3 FPGA development board was chosen as the heart of the project, featuring an ATmega32U4 and Xilinx Spartan 6 FPGA. The wily among you will have already spotted a problem – the voltage levels used by early CPUs vary greatly (as high as 15V for an Intel 4004). [Samuel]’s ingenious solution to keep the cost down is a shield for each IC family – each with its own voltage converter.
In the mid-1970s, if you had your own computer, you probably built it. If you had a lot of money and considerable building skill, you could make an Altair 8800 for about $395 — better than the $650 to have it built. However, cheaper alternatives were not far behind.
In 1976, Popular Electronics published plans for a computer called the COSMAC Elf which you could build for under $100, and much less if you had a good junk box. The design was simple enough that you could build it on a piece of perf board or using wire wrap. We featured the online archive of the entire Popular Electronics collection, but hit up page 33 of this PDF if you want to jump right to the article that started it all. The COSMAC Elf is a great little machine built around a 40-pin RCA 1802 processor, and for many was the first computer they owned. I lost my original 1802 computer in a storm and my recent rebuild in another completely different kind of storm. But there is a way to reclaim those glory days without starting from scratch. I’m going to repurpose another retro-computing recreation; the KIM-1.
I’ll admit it, Rewiring a real KIM-1 to take an 1802 CPU would be difficult and unnecessary and that’s not what this article is about. However, I did have a KIM UNO — [Oscar’s] respin of the classic computer using an Arduino mini pro. Looking at the keyboard, it occurred to me that the Arduino could just as easily simulate an 1802 as it could a 6502. Heck, that’s only two digits different, right?
The result is pretty pleasing. A “real” Elf had 8 toggle switches, but there were several variations that did have keypads, so it isn’t that far off. Most Elf computers had 256 bytes of memory (without an upgrade) but the 1802 UNO (as I’m calling it) has 1K. There’s also a host of other features, including a ROM and a monitor for loading and debugging programs that doesn’t require any space in the emulated 1802.
Everyone remembers their first. Their first CPU, that is. For many of us, it was the RCA 1802 thanks to the COSMAC Elf articles that ran in Popular Electronics. The later versions of the chip family were much better but were never as popular, but the 1805 did find its way into a printing calculator for dimensions from a company named Boyd. Some of these recently showed up on the surplus market and–of course–were subsequently hacked.
[Bill Rowe] is active in the groups that still work with the 1802. Because of some specialized uses you can still get the chips readily, some four decades after they were new. Other computers at the time were difficult to build and relatively expensive, while for $100 almost anyone could wire wrap a simple 1802-based computer together in a weekend or less.
Popular Electronics was famous for the article introducing the Altair 8800 back in 1975 (well, the cover date was 1975; it really came out in late 1974). That was so popular (no pun intended), that they ran more computer construction articles, including the SWTPC 680 late in 1975. But in 1976 a very popular article ran on building a very simple computer called the COSMAC ELF. [Youtubba] had an Altair, but always wanted a “cute” COSMAC ELF. Now, forty-something years later, he finally got around to it. He made the very detailed video about his experience, below.
Surprisingly, he didn’t have to look very hard for too many of the components as most of them were available from Digikey. He had to get compatible RAM chips, the 1802 CPU and LED displays. He also couldn’t find a look-alike crystal, so he used a fake one and a hidden oscillator. The result looks awfully close to the original. He even did a nice front panel using Front Panel Express.
In the world of computers, the central processing unit (CPU) is–well–central. Your first computer course probably explained it like the brain of the computer. However, sometimes you can overload that brain and CPU designers are always trying to improve both speed and throughput using a variety of techniques. One of those methods is DMA or direct memory access.
As the name implies, DMA is the ability for an I/O device to transfer data directly to or from memory. In some cases, it might actually transfer data to another device, but not all DMA systems support that. Sounds simple, but the devil is in the details. There’s a lot of information in this introduction to DMA by [Andrei Chichak]. It covers different types of DMA and the tradeoffs involved in each one.
In an act of retro revival, [Lee Hart] has created this “Membership Card“, an altoid tin sized tribute to the 1802 CMOS chip. Made popular in the late 70s in the RCA COSMAC ELF computer, the 1802 stole many a hackers heart. There’s tons of information available if you explore the site, from history to kit building experiences.