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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A few years ago, we saw the reverse engineering of the Lattice iCE40 bitstream, opening the door to a completely Open Source development tool chain for FPGAs. This was an astonishing amount of work from [Clifford Wolf], [Mathias Lasser], and [Cotton Seed], but since then we haven’t seen a whole lot from Project IceStorm. Now, that’s about to change, and in the coolest way possible. [hoglet] is retrocomputing on an ICE40 development board.
This is an implementation of the Acorn Atom on a myStorm BlackIce board. This board is basically just a Lattice iCE40 FPGA, a few support components, and a bunch of pin headers, some of which are in the not-so-handy Arduino pinout footprint. By porting some Acorn Atom implementations and a 6502 core to verilog, [hoglet] was able to stuff a cool old retrocomputer onto an Open Source FPGA development board. Video output is through a resistor DAC driving a VGA cable, and keyboard input is through PS/2.
Just about everything about this Open Source implementation of the Acorn works, and there’s still a lot left in the iCE40 FPGA. [hoglet] is able to run the 6502 core at 25MHz, which means just about every 6502-based system should be able to run on the BlackIce board.
Mass storage presents a problem for those involved in the preservation of older computer hardware. While today’s storage devices are cheap and huge by the standards of decades ago their modern interfaces are beyond the ability of most older computers. And what period mass storage hardware remains is likely to be both unreliable after several decades of neglect, and rather expensive if it works due to its rarity.
The Domesday Project 86 team face this particular problem to a greater extent than almost any others in the field, because their storage device is a particularly rare Philips Laser Disc drive. Their solution is the BeebSCSI, a small board with a CPLD and an AVR microcontroller providing host adaptor and SCSI-1 emulation respectively for a modern micro-SD card.
1986 saw the 900th anniversary of the Domesday Book, a survey and inventory of his new kingdom commissioned in 1086 by the Norman king of England, William the Conqueror. One of the ways the event was marked in 1986 was the BBC Domesday Project, a collaboration between the BBC, several technology companies including Acorn and Philips, and a huge number of volunteers from the general public and the British school system. Pictures, video, and text were gathered relating to locations all over the country, and the whole was compiled with a not-quite-hypertext interface onto a set of Laser Disc ROMs. The system required the upgraded Master version of the 6502-based BBC Micro, a SCSI interface, and a special Laser Disc player model manufactured by Philips for this project alone. The hardware was expensive, rare, and unreliable, so few of its contributors would have seen it in action and it faded from view to become a cause celebre among digital archivists.
There have been several resurrections of the project over the years, including one from the BBC themselves which you can browse online. What makes this project different from the others is that it strives to present the Domesday experience as it was originally intended to be viewed, on as far as possible the original hardware and with the original BBC Micro interface. Many original parts such as BBC Master systems are relatively easy to source in 2016, but the special Laser Disc player is definitely not. This board replaces that impossible link in the chain, and should allow them to present a glimpse of 1986 in more than just the on-screen information.
After thirty years of interaction with people, one might be hard pressed to find a working mouse for an older computer. On top of that, even if you did, these mice are likely a lackluster experience to begin with. They were made long before industrial designers were invited to play with computers and are often frustrating and weird. Cotton swabs and alcohol are involved, to say the least.
[Simon]’s box converts a regular USB HID compliant mouse to a quadrature signal that these 8-bit computers like. The computer then counts the fake pulses and happily moves the cursor around. No stranger to useful conversion boxes, he used an Atmel micro (AT90USB1287) with a good set of USB peripherals. It’s all nicely packed into a project box. There’s a switch on the front to select between emulation modes.
If you’d like one for yourself the code and schematics are available on his site. As you can see in the video below, the device works well!