In the early 1980s there was growing public awareness that the microcomputer revolution would have a significant effect on everybody’s lives, and there was a brief period in which anything remotely connected with a computer attracted an air of glamour and sophistication. Broadcasters wanted to get in on the act, and produced glowing documentaries on the new technology, enthusiastically crystal-ball-gazing as they did so.
In the UK, the public service BBC broadcaster produced a brace of series’ over the decade probing all corners of the subject as part of the same Computer Literacy Project that gave us Acorn’s BBC Micro, and we are lucky enough that they’ve put them all online so that we can watch them (again, in some cases, if a Hackaday scribe can get away with revealing her age).
They seem very dated now with their 8-bit micros (if not just for the word “micro”), synth music, and cheesy graphics. But what does come across is the air of optimism, this was the future, and it was packaged not as a threat, but as a good place to be. Take a look, but make sure you have plenty of time. You may spend a while in front of the screen.
We’ve mentioned int he past another spin-off from the Computer Literacy Project, the Domesday Project.
You can look at pictures and video of the Grand Canyon, Paris, New York City or anywhere else, and yet when you finally see those places with your own eyes it is somehow different. Fielding an old computer like the BBC Micro on an FPGA has been done before. But there’s always something to learn when you do it yourself. [Machina] took a BlackIce board and made a BBC Micro replica, but he learned a few things along the way and decided to share them for our benefit.
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.
Computer mice existed long before the Mac, and most of the old 8-bit computers had some software that could use a mouse. These mice had balls and quadrature encoders. While converters to turn these old mice into USB devices exist, going the other way isn’t so common. [Simon] has developed the answer to that problem in the form of SmallyMouse2. It turns a USB mouse into something that can be used with the BBC Micro, Acorn Master, Acorn Archimedes, Amiga, Atari ST and more.
The design of the SmallyMouse2 uses an AT90USB microcontroller that supports USB device and host mode, and allows for a few GPIOs. This microcontroller effectively converts a USB mouse into a BBC Micro user port AMX mouse, generic quadrature mouse, and a 10-pin expansion header. The firmware uses the LUFA USB stack, a common choice for these weird USB to retrocomputer projects.
The project is completely Open Source, and all the files to replicate this project from the KiCad project to the firmware are available on [Simon]’s GitHub. If you have one of these classic retrocomputers sitting in your attic, it might be a good time to check if you still have the mouse. If not, this is the perfect project to delve into to the classic GUIs of yesteryear.
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.
If you are familiar with ARM processors, you may know of their early history at the 1980s British home computer manufacturer Acorn. The first physical ARM system was a plug-in co-processor development board for Acorn’s BBC Micro, the machine that could be found in nearly every UK school of the day.
For an 8-bit home computer the BBC Micro had an unusually high specification. It came with parallel, serial and analog ports, built-in networking using Acorn’s proprietary Econet system, and the co-processor interface used by that ARM board, the Tube. There were several commercial co-processors for the Tube, including ones with a 6502, a Z80 allowing CP/M to be run, and an 80186.
As with most of the 8-bit generation of home computers the BBC Micro continues to maintain a strong enthusiast following who have not stopped extending its capabilities in all directions. The Tube has been interfaced to the Raspberry Pi, for instance, on which an emulation of original co-processor hardware can be run.
And thus we come to the subject of this article, [Hoglet] and [BigEd]’s 150MHz 6502 coprocessor for the BBC Micro. Which of course isn’t a 6502 at all, but a 6502 emulated in assembler on an ARM which is in a way the very distant descendant of the machine it’s hosted upon. There is something gloriously circular about the whole project, particularly as the Pi, like Acorn, the BBC Micro, and modern-day ARM, has its roots in Cambridge. How useful it is depends on your need to run 8-bit 1980s software in a tearing hurry, but they do report it runs Elite, which if you were there at the time we’re sure you will agree is the most important application to get running on a BBC Micro.
The BBC has developed a computer to be used by thousands of students across the UK. While not very powerful in terms of hardware, it comes with an interpreted language that will get students writing their own code and will launch the careers of an entire generation of web developers. This is, of course, the BBC Micro, a computer introduced in 1981, but is still deeply revered by millions of former students.
Microcontrollers are everywhere now, and the BBC is looking to replicate their success with the micro:bit. Unlike the BBC Micro, this isn’t a proper computer with a keyboard and a monitor. Instead, it’s a microcontroller development platform based on an ARM chip. Now, the micro:bit is getting Python, the BASIC of today, and will assuredly be even more useful in UK classrooms.
The initial development for Python on the micro:bit started down the road of using Microsoft’s TouchDevelop as a browser-based IDE that would send C++ code to an mBed cloud compilation service. A hex file would be generated, this would be downloaded to the local file system, and finally the student would simply drag the hex file over to the micro:bit since it appeared on the desktop as a USB storage device. This was a terrible idea, because MicroPython exists. The current way of running Python on the micro:bit is as simple as plugging it in to a USB port, opening a terminal, and writing some code. It’s the closest you’re ever going to get to a computer with BASIC in ROM, and it’s the best device for millions of 11-year-olds to learn how to code.