Honoring Chuck Peddle; Father Of The 6502 And The Chips That Went With It

Chuck Peddle, the patriarch of the 6502 microprocessor, died recently. Most people don’t know the effect that he and his team of engineers had on their lives. We often take the world of microprocessor for granted as a commonplace component in computation device, yet there was a time when there were just processors, and they were the size of whole printed circuit boards.

Chuck had the wild idea while working at Motorola that they could shrink the expensive processor board down to an integrated circuit, a chip, and that it would cost much less, tens of dollars instead of ten thousand plus. To hear Chuck talk about it, he got a cease-and-desist letter from the part of Motorola that made their living selling $14,000 processor boards and to knock off all of the noise about a $25 alternative.

In Chuck’s mind this was permission to take his idea, and the engineering team, elsewhere. Chuck and his team started MOS Technologies in the 1970’s in Norristown PA, and re-purposed their work on the Motorola 6800 to become the MOS 6502. Lawsuits followed.

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Hackaday Links: October 27, 2019

A year ago, we wrote about the discovery of treasure trove of original documentation from the development of the MOS 6502 by Jennifer Holdt-Winograd, daughter of the late Terry Holdt, the original program manager on the project. Now, Ms. Winograd has created a website to celebrate the 6502 and the team that built it. There’s an excellent introductory video with a few faces you might recognize, nostalgia galore with period photographs that show the improbable styles of the time, and of course the complete collection of lab notes, memos, and even resumes of the team members. If there were a microchip hall of fame – and there is – the 6502 would be a first-round pick, and it’s great to see the history from this time so lovingly preserved.

Speaking of the 6502, did you ever wonder what the pin labeled SO was for? Sure, the data sheets all say pin 38 of the original 40-pin DIP was the “Set Overflow” pin, an active low that set the overflow bit in the Processor Status Register. But Rod Orgill, one of the original design engineers on the 6502, told a different story: that “SO” was the initials of his beloved dog Sam Orgill. The story may be apocryphal, but it’s a Good Doggo story, so we don’t care.

You may recall a story we ran not too long ago about the shortage of plutonium-238 to power the radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) for deep-space missions. The Cold War-era stockpiles of Pu-238 were running out, but Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientists and engineers came up with a way to improve production. Now there’s a video showing off the new automated process from the Periodic Videos series, hosted by the improbably coiffed Sir Martyn Poliakoff. It’s fascinating stuff, especially seeing workers separated from the plutonium by hot-cells with windows that are 4-1/2 feet (1.4 meters) thick.

Dave Murray, better known as YouTube’s “The 8-Bit Guy”, can neither confirm nor deny the degree to which he participated in the golden age of phone phreaking. But this video of his phreaking presentation at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo reveals a lot of suspiciously detailed knowledge about the topic. The talk starts at 4:15 or so and is a nice summary of blue boxes, DTMF hacks, war dialing, and all the ways we curious kids may or may not have kept our idle hands busy before the Interwebz came along.

Do you enjoy a puzzle? We sure do, and one was just laid before us by a tipster who prefers to stay anonymous, but for whom we can vouch as a solid member of the hacker community. So no malfeasance will befall you by checking out the first clue, a somewhat creepy found footage-esque video with freaky sound effects, whirling clocks, and a masked figure reading off strings of numbers in a synthesized voice. Apparently, these clues will let you into a companion website. We worked on it for a bit and have a few ideas about how to crack this code, but we don’t want to give anything away. Or more likely, mislead anyone.

And finally, if there’s a better way to celebrate the Spooky Season than to model predictions on how humanity would fare against a vampire uprising, we can’t think of one. Dominik Czernia developed the Vampire Apocalypse Calculator to help you decide when and if to panic in the face of an uprising of the undead metabolically ambiguous. It supports several models of vampiric transmission, taken from the canons of popular genres from literature, film, and television. The Stoker-King model makes it highly likely that vampires would replace humans in short order, while the Harris-Meyer-Kostova model of sexy, young vampires is humanity’s best bet except for having to live alongside sparkly, lovesick vampires. Sadly, the calculator is silent on the Whedon model, but you can set up your own parameters to model a world with Buffy-type slayers at your leisure. Or even model the universe of The Walking Dead to see if it’s plausible that humans are still alive 3599 days into the zombie outbreak.

Riding The Nostalgia Train With A 6502 From The Ground Up

In the very early days of the PC revolution the only way to have a computer was to build one, sometimes from a kit but often from scratch. For the young, impoverished hobbyist, leafing through the pages of Popular Electronics was difficult, knowing that the revolution was passing you by. And just like that, the days of homebrewing drew to a close, forced into irrelevance by commodity beige boxes. Computing for normies had arrived.

Many of the homebrewers-that-never-were are now looking back at this time with the powerful combination of nostalgia and disposable income, and projects such as [Ben Eater]’s scratch-built 6502 computer are set to scratch the old itch. The video below introduces not only the how-to part of building a computer from scratch, but the whys and wherefores as well. Instead of just showing us how to wire up a microprocessor and its supporting chips, [Ben] starts with the two most basic things: a 6502 and its datasheet. He shows what pins do what, which ones to make high, and which ones get forced low. Clocked with a custom 555 circuit that lets him single-step and monitored with an Arduino Mega-based logic analyzer, we get a complete look at the fetch and execute cycle of a simple, hard-wired program at the pin level.

This is one of those rare videos that was over too soon and left us looking for more. [Ben] promises a follow-up to add a ROM chip and a more complex program, and we can’t wait to see that. He’s selling kits so you can build along if you don’t already have the parts. There seems to be a lot of interest in 6502 builds lately, some more practical than others. Seems like a good time to hop on the bandwagon.

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Hackaday Links: August 25, 2019

Doesn’t the Z-axis on 3D-printers seem a little – underused? I mean, all it does is creep up a fraction of a millimeter as the printer works through each slice. It would be nice if it could work with the other two axes and actually do something interesting. Which is exactly what’s happening in the nonplanar 3D-printing methods being explored at the University of Hamburg. Printing proceeds normally up until the end, when some modifications to Slic3r allow smooth toolpaths to fill in the stairsteps and produce a smooth(er) finish. It obviously won’t work for all prints or printers, but it’s nice to see the Z-axis finally pulling its weight.

If you want to know how something breaks, best to talk to someone who looks inside broken stuff for a living. [Roger Cicala] from LensRentals.com spends a lot of time doing just that, and he has come to some interesting conclusions about how electronics gear breaks. For his money, the prime culprit in camera and lens breakdowns is side-mounted buttons and jacks. The reason why is obvious once you think about it: components mounted perpendicular to the force needed to operate them are subject to a torque. That’s a problem when the only thing holding the component to the board is a few SMD solder pads. He covers some other interesting failure modes, too, and the whole article is worth a read to learn how not to design a robust product.

In the seemingly neverending quest to build the world’s worst Bitcoin mining rig, behold the 8BitCoin. It uses the 6502 processor in an Apple ][ to perform the necessary hashes, and it took a bit of doing to port the 32-bit SHA256 routines to an 8-bit platform. But therein lies the hack. But what about performance? Something something heat death of the universe…

Contributing Editor [Tom Nardi] dropped a tip about a new online magazine for people like us. Dubbed Paged Out!, the online quarterly ‘zine is a collection of contributed stories from hackers, programmers, retrocomputing buffs, and pretty much anyone with something to say. Each article is one page and is formatted however the author wants to, which leads to some interesting layouts. You can check out the current issue here; they’re still looking for a bunch of articles for the next issue, so maybe consider writing up something for them – after you put it on Hackaday.io, of course.

Tipline stalwart [Qes] let us know about an interesting development in semiconductor manufacturing. Rather than concentrating on making transistors smaller, a team at Tufts University is making transistors from threads. Not threads of silicon, or quantum threads, or threads as a metaphor for something small and high-tech. Actual threads, like for sewing. Of course, there’s plenty more involved, like carbon nanotubes — hey, it was either that or graphene, right? — gold wires, and something called an ionogel that holds the whole thing together in a blob of electrolyte. The idea is to remove all rigid components and make truly flexible circuits. The possibilities for wearable sensors could be endless.

And finally, here’s a neat design for an ergonomic utility knife. It’s from our friend [Eric Strebel], an industrial designer who has been teaching us all a lot about his field through his YouTube channel. This knife is a minimalist affair, designed for those times when you need more than an X-Acto but a full utility knife is prohibitively bulky. [Eric’s] design is a simple 3D-printed clamshell that holds a standard utility knife blade firmly while providing good grip thanks to thoughtfully positioned finger depressions. We always get a kick out of watching [Eric] design little widgets like these; there’s a lot to learn from watching his design process.

Thanks to [JRD] and [mgsouth] for tips.

Dirty Tricks For 6502 Programming

We know the 6502 isn’t exactly the CPU of choice for today’s high-performance software, but with the little CPU having appeared in so many classic computers — the Apple, the KIM-1, The Commodores, to name a few — we have a real soft spot for it. [Janne] has a post detailing the eight best entries in the Commodore 64 coding competition. The goal was to draw an X on the screen using the smallest program possible. [Janne] got 56 bytes, but two entrants clocked in at 34 bytes.

In addition to the results, [Janne] also exposes the tricks people used to get these tiny programs done. Just looking at the solution in C and then 6502 assembly is instructive. Naturally, one trick is to use the existing ROM code to do tasks such as clearing the screen. But that’s just the starting point.

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Emulating A 6502 In ROM

The Gigatron TTL microcomputer is an exercise in alternative history. What if, by some bizarre anomaly of invention and technology, the 1970s was not the age of the microprocessor? What if we could have had fast, high density ROM and RAM in the late ’70s, but the ability to put a microprocessor in silicon was beyond our comprehension? Obviously we would figure out a way to compute with this, and the Gigatron is the answer. It’s a computer from that era that’s designed with a CPU that’s entirely made of microcode.

While the Gigatron is a popular product in the world of weird electronics kits, the creator, [Marcel van Kervinck], is going beyond what anyone thought possible. Now the Gigatron is emulating a 6502 processor, the same CPU found in the Apple II and almost every other retrocomputer that isn’t running a Z80.

There’s a thread over on the Gigatron forums for this. Although it’s still very early in development, the Gigatron can now run 6502 machine code,  and in doing so the Gigatron is now the only dual-core computer without a CPU. All of the addressing modes have been implemented, along with half of the instructions and most of the status flags. All of this interacts with the Gigatron’s existing video subsystem, and all code can switch in between the Gigatron’s virtual CPU and 6502 code with just a few instructions.

This opens the door to a wide variety of software that’s already written. MicroChess is possible, as is MS Basic. This is great; the biggest downside of the Gigatron is that there was no existing code for the machine when it was first designed. That changed when the Gigatron got a C compiler, but now somehow we’ve got a logic chip implementation of a 6502 in far fewer chips than are found in an Apple II. It’s not fast ( about 1/8th the speed of a 1 MHz 6502), but in the video below you can see a munching squares demo.

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VR On The 6502

The MOS Technology 6502 was one of the more popular processors of the 1980s. It ran the Commodore 64, the NES in a modified form, and a whole bunch of other hardware, too. By modern standards, it’s barely fit to run a calculator, but no matter – [Nick Bild] built a VR game that runs on the retro CPU anyway!

[Nick]’s project is built on his 6502 computer, the Vectron 64. Being a breadboard build, it’s easy to modify things and add additional hardware, and that’s precisely what he did. The VR system uses two 320 x 240 LCD screens, one for each eye. These are controlled over SPI, but the humble 6502 simply doesn’t have the speed to clock out enough bits fast enough for a video game. Instead, additional hardware is added to generate pulses to run the screens. There’s a bunch of other neat hacks as well that help make the game playable, like overclocking the CPU to 1.75 MHz and drawing common elements to both screens at the same time.

To test out the VR system, [Nick] coded a basic Asteroids VR game. It’s not really practical to demonstrate the game without the hardware, but we’d love to try it out. There’s something compelling about a low-resolution VR game with 8-bit graphics, and we hope to see the concept further developed in future.

More grunt would make this project even more capable, and for that, a 6502 running at 20MHz could come in handy. Video after the break.

[Thanks to Fred Gimble for the tip!]

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