You’d be forgiven if you thought software defined radio (SDR) was a relatively recent discovery. After all, few outside of the hardcore amateur radio circles were even familiar with the concept until it was discovered that cheap USB TV tuners could be used as fairly decent receivers from a few hundred MHz all the way up into the GHz range. The advent of the RTL-SDR project in 2012 brought the cost of entry level SDR hardware from hundreds of dollars to tens of dollars effectively overnight. Today there’s more hackers cruising the airwaves via software trickery than there’s ever been before.
The MITS Altair 8800 occupies a unique place in computing history as the first commercially succesful microcomputer for personal rather than business use. It is famous as the platform upon which the first Microsoft product ran, their first BASIC interpreter.
[Josh Bensadon] has an Altair 8800, and became intrigued by its bootloader. The simplest method of programming the machine is through binary using a set of switches on the front panel, and he remarks that there should be a warning in the manual: “fingers will get sore after repeated use of the small switches on the ALTAIR”.
In the Altair manual there are two listings, one 21 byte, and another in 20 bytes. Bill Gates is on record as saying that their first effort was 46 bytes long, but with more work he managed to create one in 17 bytes. Now [Josh] has beaten that, he’s created an Altair 8800 bootloader in only 14 bytes.
His write-up goes into great detail about how those bytes are shaved off, and provides us with a fascinating insight into the 8800’s architecture. Even if your 8-bit assembler is a little rusty, it’s a fascinating read.
We’ve featured Altair-inspired projects many times here at Hackaday, but rarely the real thing. This Altair PC case with the ability to emulate the original was rather a nice idea, as was this Altair front panel project. If you want the joy without the heartache though, there is an online emulator.
Browse around eBay for an original Altair 8800 and you quickly find that the price range is in the thousands of dollars. If you are a collector and have some money in your pocket maybe that’s okay. But if you want the Altair 8800 experience on a budget, you can build yourself a clone with an Arduino. [David] kindly shared the build details on his Arduino Project Hub post. Using an Arduino Due (or a Mega for 25% of original speed), the clone can accurately reproduce the behavior of the Altair’s front panel elements. We covered a similar project in the past, using the Arduino Uno.
While not overly complicated to build one, you will need a fair amount of patience so you can solder all the 36 LEDs, switches, transistors, and resistors but in the end, you’ll end up with a brand new computer to play with. In 1975, an assembled Altair 8800 Computer was selling for $621 and $439 for an unassembled version. Sourced right, your clone would be under 50 bucks. Not bad.
The simulator comes with a bunch of software for you to try out and even games like Kill-the-Bit and Pong. BASIC and Assembler example programs are included in the emulator software and can easily be loaded.
In addition, the simulator includes some extra functions and built-in software for the Altair which are accessible via the AUX1/AUX2 switches on the front panel (those were included but not used on the original Altair). From starting different games to mount disks in an emulated disk drive, there are just too many functions to describe here. You can take a look at the simulator documentation for more information.
In case you don’t know already, here’s how to play Kill-the-Bit:
It appears a very important anniversary passed by recently without anyone realizing. The January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics featured the Altair 8800 on the cover, otherwise known as the blinky box that launched a revolution, the machine that made Microsoft a software powerhouse, and the progenitor of the S-100 bus. The 40-year anniversary of the Altair wasn’t forgotten by [dankar], who built a front panel emulator with the help of some much more modern components.
The build unofficially began with an Intel 8080 emulator written for an Arduino. The 8080 is the brains of the Altair, and while emulators are cool, they don’t have the nerd cred of a panel of switches and LEDs. The hardware began as a bunch of perfboard, but [dankar] wired himself into a corner and decided to make a real schematic and PCB in KiCAD.
Despite the banks of LEDs and switches, there really isn’t much to this front panel. Everything is controlled by shift registers, but there is a small amount of SRAM in the form of an SPI-capable 23LC1024. This comes in handy, because [dankar] is running CP/M 2.2 on this front panel emulator from disk images saved on an SD card. Everything you would want from a computer from 1975 is there; an OS, BASIC, and enough I/O to attach some peripherals.
[Citponys] wanted to share their Altair 8800 clone with the world, and what better way to do so than by hooking it up to the Internet? This hack was pulled off by using a Linux computer which receives a Telnet connection and redirects it to a serial port. This serial port is connected to the Altair clone. In order to connect the serial port to the Internet using TCP, the ser2sock program was used. People can interact with the Altair on the webpage, where there is also a live camera feed showing the Altair’s Blinkenlights.
This is an ongoing project for [Citponys]. Zork 1-3 and Ladder are now available for play. You can interact with other people in the current session; play nice, or it’ll end up a Mad Libs version of ‘Twitch Plays Pokemon’. Most recently, [Citponys] updated the webpage with a HTML5-embedded terminal emulator. If you want to quit the current session displayed, enter “quit” and you will be redirected to the main menu where you can choose another game. [Citponys] has links to game walkthroughs on the top of the page. We have a soft spot for classic computers and games, especially the Altair. Take a trip down memory lane and play some Zork at the fork where the past meets the present!