A Scratch-Built Forgotten Classic Of The Early PC Age

All the retrocomputer love for Commodore machines seems to fall on the C64 and Amiga, with a little sprinkling left over for the VIC-20. Those machines were truly wonderful, but what about the Commodore machine that paved their way? What about the machine that was one of the first to be gobbled up in the late 1970s by school districts eager to convert a broom closet into the new “computer lab”?

The PET 2001 might be a little hard to fall in love with given its all-in-one monitor, cassette recorder, and horrible chiclet keyboard, but some still hold a torch for it. [Glen] obviously felt strongly enough about the machine to build a PET from current production parts, and the results are pretty neat. When trying to recreate a 40-year old machine from scratch, some concessions must be made, of course. The case doesn’t attempt to replicate the all-in-one design, and the original keyboard was mercifully replaced by a standard PS/2 keyboard. But other than that the architecture is faithfully replicated using new production 65xx chips and 74HCT family logic chips. [Glen] had to jump through some hoops to get there, but as the video below shows, the finished machine plays a decent game of Space Invaders.

We’ve seen a PET brought back from the grave by FPGA and a C64 emulated on a Raspberry Pi, but going back to basics and building this from scratch was a fitting homage to an important machine in PC history.

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Ants, Dirt, Rain, And The Commodore 64 That Wouldn’t Quit

Some electronics gear is built for the roughest conditions. With rugged steel cases, weatherproof gaskets, and cables passing through sealed glands, these machines are built to take the worst that Mother Nature can throw at them, shrugging off dust, mud, rain, and ice. Consumer-grade computers from the start of the home PC era, however, are decidedly not such machines.

Built to a price point and liable to succumb to a spilled Mountain Dew, few machines from that era that received any kind of abuse lived to tell the tale. Not so this plucky Commodore 64C, which survived decades exposed to the elements. As [Adrian Black] relates in the video below, this machine was on a scrap heap in an Oregon field, piled there along with other goodies by one of those “pickers” that reality TV loves so much. The machine was a disaster. It hadn’t been soaked in oil, but it was loaded with pine needles and an ant colony. The worst part, though, was the rust. The RF shielding had corroded into powder in some places, leaving reddish rust stains all over the place. Undeterred, [Adrian] gave the machine a good bath, first in water, then in isopropanol. Liberal applications of Deoxit helped with header connections, enough to see that the machine miraculously booted. It took some finagling, especially with the 6526 I/O controller, but [Adrian] was eventually able to get everything on the motherboard working, even the sound chip.

Whether this machine survived due to good engineering or good luck is debatable, but it’s a treat to see it come back to life. We hope a full restoration is in the works, not least as a way to make up for the decades of neglect.

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Hackaday Links: August 12, 2018

Falling into the marvelous space between, ‘I really want to do that’ and ‘but that’s a lot of work and I’m lazy’ comes this reproduction of the motherboard from the original IBM 5150. This is a complete reproduction of the first PC, being sold as a kit. Yes, chips are included, although I highly doubt they’ve gone through the trouble of finding chips with contemporaneous date codes. We’re dying for a writeup on this one.

Someone has found the source code for the first Furby. [Mark Boldyrev] was talking with a few fellows on the MAME forum to see if anyone had the source for the Furby. He was looking into contacting the USPTO for the original source but the red tape involed was a bit too intense. Luckily, that research turned up some info from [Sean Riddle] who somehow already found the original source listing. After [Mark] got in contact, [Sean] posted it as a PDF. Yes, it’s 6502 source, although the microcontroller is technically a SPC81A, with the rest of the hardware consisting of TI50C04 speech chip. (you would not believe how many toys are still shipping with a 6502-ish core somewhere inside). The files are up in the archive, and we’re probably going to have a Furby MAME sometime soon.

The Bitfi hardware wallet is a cryptocurrency storage device being bandied about by [John McAffee], and there’s a quarter million dollar bug bounty on it. It’s ‘unhackable’, and ‘it has no memory’. I’m serious, those are direct quotes from [McAffee]. Both of those claims are nonsense and now it can play Doom.

Oh noes, a new hardware backdoor in x86 CPUs! [xoreaxeaxeax] has published a demo that allows userland code to read and write kernel data (that’s very bad). The exploit comes in the form of the ‘rosenbridge backdoor’, a small embedded processor tightly coupled to the CPU that is similar to, but entirely different from, Intel’s ME. This processor has access to all the CPU’s memory, registers, and pipeline. The good news, and why this isn’t big news, is that this exploit only affects Via C3 CPUs. Yes, the other company besides Intel and AMD that makes x86 CPUs. These are commonly found in industrial equipment and ATMs.

VCF West: Adding A Front Panel To The 6502

When you think about vintage computers from the 1970s, the first thing that should spring to mind are front panels loaded up with switches, LEDs, and if you’re really lucky, a lock with a key. Across all families of CPUs from the ’70s, you’ll find front panel setups for Z80s and 8080s, but strangely not the 6502. That’s not to say blinkenlights and panel switches for 6502-based computers didn’t exist, but they were astonishingly rare.

If something hasn’t been done, that means someone has to do it. [Alexander Pierson] built The Cactus, a  6502-based computer that can be controlled entirely through toggle switches and LEDs.

If you’re wondering why something like this hasn’t been built before, you only have to look at the circuitry of the 6502 CPU. The first versions of this chip were built with an NMOS process, and these first chips included bugs, undefined behavior, and could not be run with a stopped clock signal. These problems were fixed with the next chip spin using a CMOS process (which introduced new bugs), but the CMOS version of the 6502 would retain the contents of its registers with a stopped clock signal.

The specs for the Cactus computer are what you would expect from a homebrew 6502 system. The chip is a WDC 65C02S running at 1MHz, there’s 32k of RAM and a 16k EPROM, dual 6551s give serial access at various baud rates, and there are 16 bits of parallel I/O from a 65C22 VIA. The ROM is loaded up with OSI Basic. The real trick here is the front panel, though. Sixteen toggle switches allow the front panel operator to toggle through the entire address space, and eight flip switches can set any bit in the computer. Other controls include Run, Halt, Step, Examine, and Deposit, as you would expect with any front panel computer.

It’s a fantastic piece of work which I missed seeing at VCF East so I’m really glad [Alexander] made the trip between coasts. Cactus is truly something that hasn’t been done before. Not because it’s impossible, but simply because the state of the art technology from when the 6502 was new didn’t allow it. Now we have the chips, and the only limitation is finding someone willing to put in the work.

Find Your Level – Extracting NES Game Data Using Python

Just this summer, the Nintendo Entertainment System had its 35th release anniversary, and even after years of discontinuation, it is still going strong in the hacker community. Exhibit A: [Matthew Earl]. For one of his upcoming projects, [Matthew] needed to get his hands on the background images of the NES classic Super Mario Bros. Instead of just getting some ready-rendered images and stitching them together, he decided to take care of the rendering himself, once he extracts the raw game data.

Since there is no official source code available for Super Mario Bros, [Matthew] used a disassembled version to get started looking for the image data. To avoid reading through thousands of lines of assembly code, and to also see what actually happens during execution, he wrapped the game’s ROM data into py65emu, a Python library emulating the 6502, the CPU that drives the NES. By adding a simple wrapper around the emulator’s memory handler that tracks reads on uninitialized data, [Matthew] managed to find out which parameters he needs to feed to the parser routine in order to get the image tile data. After an excursion into the Picture Processing Unit (PPU) and its memory arrangements, [Matthew] had everything he needed to create the Python script that will render the game background straight from its ROM data.

Even if extracting NES game data is not your thing, the emulator concept [Matthew] uses might be still worth a read. On the other hand, if you want to dig deeper into the NES, you should definitely have a look at emulating an SNES game on a NES, presented on the NES itself.

VCF East: Cactus, Retro Because it Wants to Be

Among the rows of digital dinosaurs, one blinking front panel stood out. It certainly looked the part of a retro computer; with banks of blinking LEDs and multicolored paddle switches. But upon closer inspection, the laser cut wooden front panel betrays the fact that this machine is an impostor. It may have the appearance of a machine from the heady days where home computers looked like they could have doubled as a prop on the bridge of Kirk’s Enterprise, but it’s actually a product of much more modern provenance.

It’s called the Cactus, a love letter to the homebrew microcomputers of the 1970’s, designed and built by somebody at least 20 years too young to have experienced them the first time around. Alexander Pierson created the Cactus not because he had fond memories of putting together an Altair 8800 in 1975, but because he’s fascinated with the retro computer experience: the look of the front panel, the satisfying clunk of era-appropriate switches, and the idea that the computer’s inner workings aren’t an abstract black box but rather something you can interact with and study. Judging by all the attention the Cactus got at VCF East XIII, he’s not the only one.

Let’s take a look at everything Alexander poured into this retrocomputer build.

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A 6502 with a Custom Language

The 6502 has a long history with hackers. The Apple computer (the one with no keyboard or even case) had a 6502. So did the Kim-1. [Dolo’s] version is a bit more refined, though. He started it a few years ago in response to one of our contests, but he’s been making improvements to it ever since. In particular, the custom programming language, Dflat, has many improvements lately, including true functions and high-resolution drawing.

The hardware has a CPU running at over 2.5 MHz, 44K of RAM, 16K of PROM, and 16K of video RAM. There’s plenty of I/O, including a keyboard, sound, and joysticks. An SD card provides mass storage and it all goes in a hacked BBC Micro case. You can see an overview video, below.

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