A Slice Of Simulation, Google Sheets Style

Have you ever tried to eat one jelly bean or one potato chip? It is nearly impossible. Some of us have the same problem with hardware projects. It all started when I wrote about the old bitslice chips people used to build computers before you could easily get a whole CPU on a chip. Bitslice is basically Lego blocks that build CPUs. I have always wanted to play with technology, so when I wrote that piece, I looked on eBay to see if I could find any leftovers from this 1970-era tech. It turns out that the chips are easy to find, but I found something even better. A mint condition AM2900 evaluation board. These aren’t easy to find, so the chances that you can try one out yourself are pretty low. But I’m going to fix that, virtually speaking.

This was just the second potato chip. Programming the board, as you can see in the video below, is tedious, with lots of binary switch-flipping. To simplify things, I took another potato chip — a Google Sheet that generates the binary from a quasi-assembly language. That should have been enough, but I had to take another chip from the bag. I extended the spreadsheet to actually emulate the system. It is a terrible hack, and Google Sheets’ performance for this sort of thing could be better. But it works.

Continue reading “A Slice Of Simulation, Google Sheets Style”

Slicing And Dicing The Bits: CPU Design The Old Fashioned Way

Writing for Hackaday can be somewhat hazardous. Sure, we don’t often have to hide from angry spies or corporate thugs. But we do often write about something and then want to buy it. Expensive? Hard to find? Not needed? Doesn’t really matter. My latest experience with this effect was due to a recent article I wrote about the AM2900 bitslice family of chips. Many vintage computers and video games have them inside, and, as I explained before, they are like a building block you use to build a CPU with the capabilities you need. I had read about these back in the 1970s but never had a chance to work with them.

As I was writing, I wondered if there was anything left for sale with these chips. Turns out you can still get the chips — most of them — pretty readily. But I also found an eBay listing for an AM2900 “learning and evaluation kit.” How many people would want such a thing? Apparently enough that I had to bid a fair bit of coin to take possession of it, but I did. The board looked like it was probably never used. It had the warranty card and all the paperwork. It looked in pristine condition. Powering it up, it seemed to work well.

What Is It?

The board hardly looks at least 40  years old.

The board is a bit larger than a letter-sized sheet of paper. Along the top, there are three banks of four LEDs. The bottom edge has three banks of switches. One bank has three switches, and the other two each have four switches. Two more switches control the board’s operation, and two momentary pushbutton switches.

The heart of the device, though, is the AM2901, a 4-bit “slice.” It isn’t quite a CPU but more just the ALU for a CPU. There’s also an AM2909, which controls the microcode memory. In addition, there’s a small amount of memory spread out over several chips.

A real computer would probably have many slices that work together. It would also have a lot more microprogram memory and then more memory to store the actual program. Microcode is a very simple program that knows how to execute instructions for the CPU. Continue reading “Slicing And Dicing The Bits: CPU Design The Old Fashioned Way”