Why on earth would you want an oversized replica of an outdated logic chip from nearly five decades ago, we hear you ask? The answer lies in education. If you were to embark on learning about the internals of a microprocessor by taking a modern example such as the one that powers the device on which you are reading this, you would find it to be a daunting task. Over six decades of progress in computer technology have delivered the performance enhancements that put a supercomputer in your smartphone, but at the expense of a contemporary microprocessor being an extremely complex machine which you can’t peer into for any level of understanding.
The starting point for the student of microprocessor internals often lies in the past. The technology of the early 1970s holds the fundamentals from which a modern processor can be understood, but remains simple enough to grasp in its entirety as a beginner. Registers, instruction decoders, counters, and an arithmetic/logic unit, or ALU. And for decades the 74181, as an all-in-one 4-bit ALU on a chip that you might have found in a minicomputer at the turn of the 1970s, represented the most convenient way to teach the operation of these devices. Electronic engineers and computer scientists of all ages will have encountered them as they gained their qualifications.
The PCB version of the 181 faithfully follows the original, but with modern 74LVC gates laid out as they would be in the circuit diagram of the chip, and LEDs to show logic state at the different parts of the circuit. Thus when it is used to teach ALU operation it can show every part of the device in detail in a way a real 74181 would never have done.
[Irene Posch] is big into knitted fabric circuits. And while most of the textile circuits that we’ve seen are content with simply conducting enough juice to light an LED, [Irene]’s sights are set on knittable crafted arithmetic logic units (ALUs). While we usually think of transistors as the fundamental building-blocks of logic circuits, [Irene] has developed what is essentially a knit crochet relay. Be sure to watch the video after the break to see it in construction and in action.
The basic construction is a coil of conductive thread that forms an electromagnet, and a magnetic bead suspended on an axle so that it can turn in response to the field. To create a relay, a flap of knit conductive thread is attached to the bead, which serves as the pole for what’s essentially a fabric-based SPDT switch. If you’ve been following any of our relay-logic posts, you’ll know that once you’ve got a relay, the next step to a functioning computer is a lot of repetition.
How does [Irene] plan to display the results of a computation? On knit-and-bead flipdot displays, naturally. Combining the same electromagnet and bead arrangement with beads that are painted white on one side and black on the other yields a human-readable one-bit display. We have an unnatural affinity for flipdot displays, and making the whole thing out of fabric-store components definitely flips our bits.
Anyway, [Irene Posch] is a textile-tech artist who you should definitely be following if you have any interest in knittable computers. Have you seen anything else like this? Thanks [Melissa] for the awesome tip!
You will all no doubt be familiar with the 74 series logic integrated circuits, they provide the glue logic for countless projects. If you look back through old listings of the series you’ll find alongside the familiar simple gates a host of now obsolete chips that reveal their roots in the pre-microprocessor computer industry of the late 1960s, implementing entire functions that would now be integrated.
One of the more famous of these devices is the 74181, a cascadable 4-bit arithmetic logic unit, or ALU. An ALU is the heart of a microprocessor, performing its operations. The 74181 appeared in many late-60s and early-70s minicomputers, will be familiar to generations of EE and CS students as the device they were taught about ALUs on, and can now be found in some home-built retrocomputers.
[Ken Shirriff], doyen of the integrated circuit teardown, has published a piece taking a look at the 74181, in particular at its logic functions and the reason for some of them that are rather surprising. As well as the normal logic functions, for example the chip can do “(A + B) PLUS AB“. Why on earth you might think would an ALU need to do that?
The answer lies in the way it performs carrying while adding, a significant speed-up can be achieved over ripple carrying along a chain of adders if it can be ascertained whether a bit addition might generate a carry bit. He explains the function required to perform this operation, and suddenly the unusual extra function makes sense. Addition is transformed from a serial process to a parallel one, with a consequent speed increase.
It’s one of those moments in which you have to salute those logic designers from an era when on-chip real-estate was costly and every ounce of speed had to be teased from their designs. Give it a read, and have a go at the interactive 74181 simulator further down [Ken]’s page. We learned something from the article, and so may you.
We have most recently seen [Ken] at work explaining his decapping and reverse engineering process at the Hackaday SuperCon followed soon after by his work on the 8008. That chip is crazy with complexity and a die-ogling noob (like several of us on the Hackaday crew) stands no chance of doing more than simply following along with what he explains. This time around, the 74181 is just right for the curious but not obsessed. Don’t believe me? The 8008 had around 3,500 transistors while the friendly 74181 hosts just 170. We like those odds!
A quick crash course in visually recognizing transistors will have you off to the races. [Ken] also provides reference for more complex devices. But where he really saves the day is in his schematic analysis. See, the traditional ‘textbook’ logic designs have been made faster in this chip and going through his explanation will get you back on track to follow the method behind the die’s madness.
[Ken] took his own photograph of the die. You can see the donor chip above which had its ceramic enclosure shattered with a brisk tap from a sharp chisel.
Every few years, someone on the Internet builds a truly homebrew CPU. Not one built with a 6502, Z80, or a CPU from the 80s, either: one built completely out of 74-series logic chips or discrete transistor. We’re lucky enough to have [Alexander] document his build on Hackaday.io, and even luckier to have him enter it into this year’s Hackaday Prize. It’s an 8-bit computer built completely out of NAND gates.
Computers are just logic, and with enough NAND gates, you can do anything. That’s exactly what [Alex] is doing with this computer. It’s built entirely out of 74F00 chips – a ‘fast’ version of the ubiquitous quad 2-input NAND chip. The architecture of this computer borrows from the best CPUs of the 70s and 80s. The ALU is only four bits, like the Z80, but also uses the 6502 technique where the borrow is an inverted carry. It’s a small instruction set, a 2-stage pipeline, and should be able to compute one million instructions per second.
Designing a CPU is one thing, and thanks to Logisim, this is already done. Constructing a CPU is another matter entirely. For this, [Alex] is going for a module and backplane approach, where the ALU is constructed of a few identical modules tied together into a gigantic motherboard. [Alex] isn’t stopping at a CPU, either: he has a 16-byte ROM that’s programmed by plugging diodes into holes.
It’s an amazingly ambitious project, and for entering this project into the 2016 Hackaday Prize, [Alex] already netted himself $1000 and a trip to the final round of competition.
[Dave] wanted to learn more about the ARM architecture, so he started with an image of the ARMV1 die. If you’ve had some experience looking at CPU die, you can make some pretty good guesses at what parts of the chip have certain functions. [Dave], however, went further. He reverse engineered the entire ALU–about 2,200 transistors worth.
Two students at the University of Bristol wanted to create a computer to demonstrate how ALUs work. The result is the TwitALU, a Twitter connected mechanical calculator.
The device uses a custom 7400 series ALU based on the famous MOS 6502 processor. Instead of doing the calculations on a silicon die, the ALU drives mechanical relays. This produces a nice clicky-clacky sound as the calculation is computed.
To start a calculation, you tweet @twittithmetic with your input. A Raspberry Pi is used to load the instructions into the ALU. Once the computation is done, it’s tweeted back to you and displayed on the Nixie tube display. It’s not efficient, or fast, but it does the job of demonstrating the inner workings of the device while doing simple math.
The device’s schematics are all available on the website, and are helpful for understanding how a simple ALU works. After the break, check out a quick clip of the TwitALU in action.