The Q2, A PDP8-Like Discrete Transistor Computer

[Joe Wingbermuehle] has an interest in computers-of-old, and some past experience of building computers on perfboard from discrete transistors, so this next project, Q2, is a complete implementation of a PDP8-like microcomputer on a single PCB. Like the DEC PDP-8, this is a 12-bit machine, but instead of the diode-transistor logic of the DEC, the substantially smaller Q2 uses a simple NMOS approach. Also, the DEC has core memory, but the Q2 resorts to a pair of SRAM ICs, simply because who wants to make repetitive memory structures with discrete 2N7002 transistors anyway?

SMT components for easy machine placement

Like the PDP-8, this machine uses a bit-serial ALU, which allows the circuit to be much smaller than the more usual ALU structure, at the expense of needing a clock cycle per bit per operation, i.e. a single ALU operation will take 12 clock cycles. For this machine, the instruction cycle time is either 8 or 32 clocks anyway, and at a maximum speed of 80 kHz it’s not exactly fast (and significantly slower than a PDP-8) but it is very small. Small, and perfectly formed.

The machine is constructed from 1094 transistors, with logic in an NMOS configuration, using 10 K pullup resistors. This is not a fast way to build a circuit, but it is very compact. By looking at the logic fanout, [Joe] spotted areas with large fanouts, and reduced the pull-up resistors from 10 K to 1 K. This was done in order to keep the propagation delay within bounds for the cycle time without excessive power usage. Supply current was kept to below 500 mA, allowing the board to be powered from a USB connector. Smart!

Memory is courtesy of two battery-backed 6264 SRAMs, with the four 12-bit general purpose registers built from discrete transistors. An LCD screen on board is a nice touch, augmenting the ‘front panel’ switches used for program entry and user input. A 40-pin header was added, for programming via a Raspberry Pi in case the front panel programming switches are proving a bit tedious and error prone.

Discrete transistor D-type flip flop with indicator. Latest circuit switched to 2N7002 NMOS.

In terms of the project write-up, there is plenty to see, with a Verilog model available, a custom programming language [Joe] calls Q2L, complete with a compiler and assembler (written in Rust!) even an online Q2 simulator! Lots of cool demos, like snake. Game of Life and even Pong, add some really lovely touches. Great stuff!

We’ve featured many similar projects over the years; here’s a nice one, a really small 4-bit one, and a really big one.


Virtual Eurorack Based CPU Computes To The Beat Of A Different Drum Module

In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1972 story “Dial F for Frankenstein”, the worlds first global network of phone exchanges was created by satellite link, and events happened that caused the characters in the story to wonder if the interconnected mesh of machinery had somehow become sentient. And that’s what we wondered when we saw this latest virtual CPU construction built by GitHub user [katef] and made from a virtual analog synthesizer software called VCV Rack.

Analogous to a Redstone computer in Minecraft, there’s no physical hardware involved. But instead of making crazy synth sounds for a music project, [katef] has built a functioning CPU complete with an Arithmetic Logic Unit, an adder, and other various things you’ll find in a real CPU such as registers and a clock.

While no mention is made of whether the construct is sentient, [katef] fully documented the build on their GitHub page, and so go check that out for animated pictures, links to more information, and more. It’s quite impressive, if not just a little bonkers. But most good hacks are, right?

We love unique CPU builds, and you might get a kick out of this one made from- that’s right- 555 timers. Thanks to [Myself] on the Hackaday Discord server for the tip, and be sure to send in your favorite outrageous projects to the Hackaday tip line!

An ALU As A Desktop Calculator Has Stunning Style From Days Gone By

Those of you with an interest in microcomputer history will know that there is a strong crossover between the path of electronic calculator evolution and the genesis of the integrated CPU. Intel’s 4000 was famously designed for a calculator, and for a while in the 1970s these mathematical helpers were seen as the wonder of the age. [Simon Boak]’s calculator is a curious throwback to that era, as it’s not a decimal calculator as we’d know it but a hexadecimal device that simply computes using the functions of the famous 74181 ALU chip.

An ALU, or to give it its full name an Arithmetic Logic Unit, is a component of a CPU with two inputs and one output that can perform any of a range of binary functions upon the two inputs and return the result on the output. This calculator has two of them for eight bits of raw adding power, with a hexadecimal keypad for setting the inputs and a set of 7-segment displays for showing the results. It’s housed in an achingly retro folded sheet metal console case with wooden end pieces that would have graced any engineer’s desk with pride back in about 1975. We may not need one, but we really want one!

If the 74181 is a mystery to you then fear not, because chip master [Ken Shirriff] has produced some handy explanation work on its operation.

Thanks [Ted Yapo] for the tip.

Thousands Of Discrete MOSFETs Make Up This Compact CPU-Less Computer

How long has it been since a computer could boast about the fact that it contained 2,500 transistors? Probably close to half a century now, at a guess. So in a world with a couple of billion transistors per chip, is a 2,500-transistor computer really something to brag about? Yes. Yes, it is.

The CPU-less computer, called the TraNOR by its creator [Dennis Kuschel], is an elaboration on his previous MyNOR, another CPU-less machine that used a single NOR-gate made of discrete transistors as the core of its arithmetic-logic unit (ALU). Despite its architectural simplicity, MyNOR was capable of some pretty respectable performance, and even managed to play a decent game of Tetris. TraNOR, on the other hand, is much more complicated, mainly due to the fact that instead of relying on 74HC-series chips, [Dennis] built every single gate on the machine from discrete MOSFETs. The only chips on the four stacked PCBs are a trio of memory chips; we don’t fault him at all for the decision not to build the memory — he may be dedicated, but even art has its limits. And TraNOR is indeed a work of art — the video below shows the beautiful board layouts, with seemingly endless arrays of SMD transistors all neatly arranged and carefully soldered. And extra points for using Wintergatan’s marble machine melody as the soundtrack, too.

As much as we loved the original, TraNOR is really something special. Not only is it beautiful, but it’s functional — it’s even backward-compatible with MyNOR’s custom software. Hats off to [Dennis] for pulling off another wonderful build, and for sharing it with us.

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Homebrew Relay Computer Looks Like It Could Be A Commercial Product

You may not have noticed, but we here at Hackaday really love our clicky stuff. Clicky mechanical keyboards, unnecessarily noisy flip-dot displays, and pretty much anything made with a lot of relays — they all grab our attention, in more ways than one. So it’s with no small surprise that we appear to have entirely missed perhaps the clickiest build of all: a fully operational 8-bit computer using nothing but relays.

What’s even more amazing about our failure to find and feature [Paul Law]’s excellent work is that he has been at it for the better part of a decade now. The first post on his very detailed and very well-crafted blog describing the build dates from 2013, when he was just testing LEDs in the arithmetic-logic unit (ALU). Since then, [Paul] has made incredible progress, building module after module, each containing a small portion of the computer’s functionality. The modules plug into card cages with backplanes to connect them, and the whole thing lives in an enclosure made from aluminum extrusion and glossy black panels for a truly sleek look. The computer is incredibly compact for something that uses 400+ DPDT relays to do its thinking.

In addition to the blog, [Paul] has a criminally undersubscribed YouTube channel with a quite recent series going over the computer in depth. We included the overall tour below, but you should really check out the rest of the videos to appreciate how much work went into this build. We’ve seen relay computers ranging in size from single-board to just plain ludicrous, but this one really takes the prize for fit and finish as well as functionality.

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DIY 8-Bit Computer Knows All The Tricks

Some projects are a rite of passage within their respected fields. For computer science, building one’s own computer from scratch is certainly among those projects. Of course, we’re not talking about buying components online and snapping together a modern x86 machine. We mean building something closer to a fully-programmable 8-bit computer from the ground up, like this one from [Federico] based on 74LS logic chips.

The computer was designed and built from scratch which is impressive enough, but [Federico] completed this project in about a month as well. It can be programmed manually through DIP switches or via a USB connection to another computer, and also includes an adjustable clock which can perform steps anywhere from 1 Hz to 32 kHz. Complete with a 1024 byte memory, a capable ALU, four seven-segment LEDs and (in the second version of the computer) a 2×16 LCD disply, this 8-bit computer has it all.

Not only is this a capable machine designed by someone who clearly knows his way around a logic chip, but [Federico] has also made the code and schematics available on his GitHub page. It’s worth a read even without building your own, but if you want to go that route without printing an enormous PCB you can always follow the breadboard route.

Thanks to [killergeek] for the tip!

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A CPU-Less Computer With A Single NOR-Gate ALU

We see a lot of discrete-logic computer builds these days, and we love them all. But after a while, they kind of all blend in with each other. So what’s the discrete logic aficionado to do if they want to stand out from the pack? Perhaps this CPU-less computer with a single NOR-gate instead of an arithmetic-logic unit is enough of a hacker flex? We certainly think so.

We must admit that when we first saw [Dennis Kuschel]’s “MyNor” we thought all the logic would be emulated by discrete NOR gates, which of course can be wired up in various combinations to produce every other logic gate. And while that would be really cool, [Dennis] chose another path. Sitting in the middle of the very nicely designed PCB is a small outcropping, a pair of discrete transistors and a single resistor. These form the NOR gate that is used, along with MyNor’s microcode, to perform all the operations normally done by the ALU.

While making the MyNor very slow, this has the advantage of not needing 74-series chips that are no longer manufactured, like the 74LS181 ALU. It may be slow, but as seen in the video below, with the help of a couple of add-on cards of similar architecture, it still manages to play Minesweeper and Tetris and acts as a decent calculator.

We really like the look of this build, and we congratulate [Dennis] on pulling it off. He has open-sourced everything, so feel free to build your own. Or, check out some of the other CPU-less computers we’ve featured: there’s the Gigatron, the Dis-Integrated 6502, or the jumper-wire jungle of this 8-bit CPU-less machine.

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