A CRT Monitor Restoration

Nothing quite says vintage computer like a dedicated glass terminal. We enjoyed [Adam]’s restoration of an Acorn CRT monitor. The 14 inch display had a common problem: a defective power switch. Replacing a switch shouldn’t be a big deal, of course, but these old CRT monitors have exciting voltages inside and require special care.

One common issue, for example, is the fact that the old CRTs are really large capacitors and can hold a dangerous charge for some time. The easiest way to handle the potential problem is to make sure the device is unplugged, ground a screwdriver blade, and push the blade under the second anode cap. Most of the time, nothing happens. Once in a while, though, you’ll hear a loud pop and you just saved yourself a nasty shock.

Even though the actual repair was pretty mundane, the teardown was a great nostalgia trip and while we don’t want to give up our LCD, we do like the old glass. CRTs have a long history and came a long way before their last gasps. They even took a turn as mass storage devices.

Automate The Farm With Acorn

Farming has been undergoing quite a revolution in the past few years. Since World War 2, most industrial farming has relied on synthetic fertilizer, large machinery, and huge farms with single crops. Now there is a growing number of successful farmers bucking that trend with small farms growing many crops and using natural methods of fertilizing that don’t require as much industry. Of course even with these types of farms, some machinery is still nice to have, so this farmer has been developing an open-source automated farming robot.

The robot is known as Acorn and is the project of [taylor] who farms in California. The platform is powered by an 800 watt solar array feeding a set of supercapacitors for energy storage. It uses mountain bike wheels and tires fitted with electric hub motors which give it four wheel drive and four wheel steering to make it capable even in muddy fields. The farming tools, as well as any computer vision and automation hardware, can be housed under the solar panels. This prototype uses an Nvidia Jetson module to handle the heavy lifting of machine learning and automation, with a Raspberry Pi to handle the basic operation of the robot, and can navigate itself around a farm using highly precise GPS units.

While the robot’s development is currently ongoing, [taylor] hopes to develop a community that will build their own versions and help develop the platform. Farming improvements like this are certainly needed as more and more farmers shift from unsustainable monocultures to more ecologically friendly methods involving multiple simultaneous crops, carbon sequestration, and off-season cover crops. It’s certainly a long row to hoe but plenty of people are already plowing ahead.

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A “Disgusting” 1980s Computer Restored

It takes a special eye to see a junkyard car and envision it as your latest hotrod. The guys at RMC found what they termed a “disgusting” Acorn Electron and decided to restore it to its former glory. The Electron was a budget version of the BBC micro with a 6502 running at 2 MHz when executing code from ROM and 1 MHz when it hit the RAM. Apparently, at least some of the bus was operating at 4 bits instead of 8. Go figure.

The 1982 machine was meant to head off the Sinclair ZX and was set to sell for about £200. However, the machine didn’t catch on like the Sinclair and undersold it by around 20 times with a paltry quarter of a million units.

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Adding WiFi To The Acorn Electron

In the continuing quest by countless hobbyists to allow every 1980s 8-bit home computer to experience the joys of an online experience that doesn’t involve a 9600 baud modem, [Roland Leurs] has created a cartridge-based module for the Acorn Electron that adds WiFi, which he showed off at the virtual ABug conference in September 2020.

The Acorn Electron is a Synertek 6502-based computer that was released in the UK in August of 1983. It’s a budget version of the well-known BBC Micro educational/home computer, with 32 kB of RAM and featuring BBC BASIC v2 in its ROM. [Roland]’s ElkWiFi card slots into an available cartridge slot, after which the onboard ESP8266 (ESP-1 module) can be enabled and used as a WiFi modem.

Acorn Electron with Plus 1 expansion, ElkWiFi and additional expansion card inserted.

The board features the Exar ST16C2552CJ dual UART chip, one channel of which connects to the ESP-1 module, with the other channel used as an uncommitted UART header. The control logic is implemented in VHDL and flashed to the onboard Xilinx CPLD, and a 128 kB RAM module is used as WiFi data buffer.

Although a definite niche product, reading through the forum thread makes one really appreciate the technical complexity and joy once things are beginning to work reliably. It also shows one of the few cases where an ESP-1 module is used for its original purpose: as an easy way to add WiFi functionality with full WiFi and TCP stack, without burdening the main CPU.

(Thanks, BaldPower)

Econet – Britain’s Early Educational Network

If you compare the early PC market for the US and the UK, you’ll notice one big difference. While many US schools had Apple computers, there were significant numbers of other computers in schools, as well. In the UK, pretty much every school that had a computer had an Acorn BBC Micro. [RetroBytes] takes us down memory lane, explaining how and why the schools went with Econet — an early network virtually unknown outside of the UK. You can see the video, which includes an interview with one of the Acorn engineers involved in Econet.

Nowadays, you don’t have to convince people of the value of a network, but back then it wasn’t a no brainer. The driver for most schools to adopt networking was to share a very expensive hard disk drive among computers. The network used RS-422, a common enough choice in Apple computers, spacecraft, and industrial control applications.

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Little Emulators Do 8 Bits At A Time

Have you ever wondered how many, for example, Commodore 64s it would take to equal the processing power in your current PC? This site might not really answer that, but it does show that your machine can easily duplicate all the old 8-bit computers from Commodore, Sinclair, Acorn, and others. By our count, there are 86 emulators on the page, although many of those are a host machine running a particular application such as Forth or Digger.

If you are in the US, you might not recognize all the references to the KC85, this was an East German computer based on a Z80 clone. Very few of these were apparently available for personal purchase, but they were very popular in schools and industry. These were made by Robotron, and there are some other Robotron models on the page, too.

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A Very 2017 Take On A BBC Micro

In the early 1980s, there were a plethora of 8-bit microcomputers on the market, and the chances are that if you were interested in such things you belonged to one of the different tribes of enthusiasts for a particular manufacturer’s product. If you are British though there is likely to be one machine that will provide a common frame of reference for owners of all machines of that era: The Acorn BBC Microcomputer which was ubiquitous in the nation’s schools. This 6502-driven machine is remembered today as the progenitor and host of the first ARM processors, but at the time was notable for the huge array of built-in interfaces it contained. Its relatively high price though meant that convincing your parents to buy you one instead of a ZX Spectrum was always going to be an uphill struggle.

So, you never owned a BBC Micro, and this has scarred you for life. Never mind, all is not lost, for now you can have that Acorn experience without scouring eBay for a classic micro, by running one entirely in silicon on a myStorm FPGA board.

To be fair, running classic hardware on an FPGA is nothing new and there have been a few BBC Micros implemented in this way, not to mention an Acorn Atom. But this project builds on the previous FPGA BBC Micros by porting it entirely to Verilog and incorporating some of the bug fixes from their various forks. There are screenshots of the result running several classic games, as well as test screens and a benchmark revealing it to be a faithful reproduction of a 2MHz BBC Micro.

We covered the myStorm board when it arrived last year. We’ve also brought you another FPGA board running as a coprocessor for a real BBC micro.

Thanks [monsonite] for the tip. He also alerts us that the myStorm board’s ARM microcontroller can now be programmed from the Arduino IDE.