Books You Should Read: Bil Herd’s Back Into The Storm

It’s a morning ritual that we guess most of you share with us; before whatever work a new day will bring to sit down with a coffee and catch up with the tech news of the moment on Hackaday and other sites. Most of us don’t do many exciting things in our everyday lives, so reading about the coolest projects and the most fascinating new developments provides us with interest and motivation. Imagine just for a moment then that by a twist of fate you found yourself taking a job at the epicentre of the tech that is changing the world,  producing the objects of desire and pushing the boundaries, the place you’d give anything to work at.

This is the premise behind our Hackaday colleague Bil Herd’s autobiographical chronicle of time in the mid 1980s during which he worked at Commodore, maker of some of the most iconic home computers of the day. We follow him through the three years from 1983 to 1986 as hardware lead on the “TED” series of computers including the Commodore 16 and Plus/4, and then the Commodore 128, a dual-processor powerhouse which was arguably the last of the big-selling 8-bit home computers.

It’s an intertwined set of narratives peppered with personal anecdotes; of the slightly crazy high-pressure world of consumer videogames and computing, the fine details of designing a range of 8-bit machines, and a fascinating insight into how the culture at Commodore changed in the period following the departure of its founder Jack Tramiel.

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Learn Bil Herd’s DIY Surface Mount Assembly Process

You can do your own Surface Mount Technology based PCB assembly with just a handful of tools and some patience. At the heart of my SMT process is stopping to inspect the various steps all while trying to maintain a bit of cleanliness in the process.

Surface mount or Surface Mount Technology (SMT) is the modern way to assemble Printed Circuit Boards (PCB) and is what is commonly seen when opening a modern piece of tech. It’s much smaller than the older Through-Hole (TH) technology where the component leads were inserted into holes in PCB, and act we called “stuffing” since we had to stuff the components into the holes.

A few specialized tools make this a lot easier, but resourceful hackers will be able to pull together a solder paste stencil jig, vacuum tweezers, and a modified toaster oven with a controller that can follow the reflow profile of the solder paste. Where you shouldn’t skimp is on the quality, age, and storage of the solder paste itself.

Join me after the break for my video overview of the process I use in my workshop, along with details of every step of my SMT assembly process.

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Video: Exploring The Abandoned Birthplace Of The 6502 And Commodore 64

I miss my friend Dave DiOrio. He was a chip designer in the 1980’s, which made him one of the true wizards back then. We met my first day when I started at Commodore Business Machines, though my paycheck said MOS Technology on it.

MOS Technology was the birthplace of the venerable 6502 microprocessor, the VIC video chip, and the SID sound chip to name the really famous ones. It also brought us the TED Text Display chip, a whole boatload of Amiga chips, and several other chips that almost did what we wanted them to do.

I worked with magicians whose stock and trade were comprised of half-part quantum tunneling effect and half-part straight-up logic implementation. These magicians weren’t bound by the number of pins available for TTL logic, not like us lowly hardware engineers who had to string 14 and 16 pin chips together to do any real lifting.

Below the spartan offices where the designs were drawn lived the dragon otherwise known as a chip fab, short for integrated circuit fabrication plant. This beast ate sand and made wafers; slices of almost pure silicon in crystalline form with all kinds of intricate things craftily grown on top of them.

Memory Lane: Touring the Abandoned MOS Headquarters

MOS Technology was started in 1969 by Allen Bradley but only became the MOS that I think of when I talk about the good old days when Chuck Peddle and a bunch of cohorts from Motorola, including Bill Mensch, swept in and produced the 6502 microprocessor, which resembled a particular Motorola processor quite a bit, in fact a lot. Lawsuits followed.

Meanwhile the 6502 was taking over several industries as the go-to processor for everything from medical equipment to microwave ovens to home computers. It was while designing home computers that I met Dave while standing above a chip fab. I can still remember the smell of that dragon farting below our feet… its an understatement to say I miss those times.

A couple of years ago I had a chance to return to the old stomping ground as it were, and set foot (legally) inside of MOS headquarters in Norristown, PA — which had become CSG (Commodore Semiconductor Group) by the end. The basement was dirty and flooded and yet we found wafers, one from one of the computers I worked on.

The ground floor was dark and quiet, I stood at the dirty glass entrance doors looking out at a drab street and I quickly moved on before I got hit by some sort of self evident metaphor for life that would have been annoying.

The second floor was where our offices had been. The hot press of design deadlines has long since left this space, now all there is to see is the golf course out the window and a little camp fire someone had made. I got to show this video to Dave, including the view looking out his old office window, and we both smiled at the thought that it was now 35 years later.

Dave has since passed away, the world has one less wizard and as the video shows, the dragon has long since gone quiet.

Saturday: Vintage Computer Festival West

The Vintage Computer Festival West is an annual gathering to celebrate the awesome hardware that ushered in the Information Age. Normally held at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, this year VCF West is happening virtually and it all starts on Saturday!

The lineup of talks looks great, covering everything from operating an Apollo DSKY display panel and how to recover magnetic tape to ENIAC technical manual bugs and the genesis of the 6502. That last one is presented by Bill Mensch who was on the team that created the 6502 in the first place. He’ll be joined by Hackaday’s own Bil Herd (himself a celebrated Commodore and MOS alum) and Eric Schlaepfer (you may remember his Monster 6502 project). You may not be able to wander the exhibits and play with the vintage hardware this year, but you can hear from a lot of people who have spent years learning the hacks and quirks that made these systems tick.

Hacakaday is proud to once again sponsor VCF West. You don’t need a ticket, the conference will live stream on their YouTube channel for all who are interested. We’ve embedded the live stream below, as well as the awesome poster at that Joe Kim produced for display at the festival.

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Die Photos Reveal Logic From Commodore 128 PLA Chip

The 8721 PLA, or programmable logic array, was one of the chips that had to be invented to make the Commodore 128, the last of the 8-bit computers that formed the leading edge of the early PC revolution, a reality. [Johan Grip] got a hold of one of these chips and decided to reverse engineer it, to see what the C-128 designers had in mind back in mid-1980s.

PLAs were the FPGAs of the day, with arrays of AND gates and OR gates that could be connected into complex logic circuits. [Johan]’s investigation started with liberating the 8721 die from its package, for which he used the quick and easy method favored by [CuriousMarc]. The next step was tooling up, as the microscope he was using proved insufficient to the task. Even with a better microscope in hand, [Johan] still found the need to tweak it, adding one of the new high-quality Raspberry Pi cameras and motorizing the stage with some stepper motors and a CNC controller board.

With optics sorted out, he was able to identify all the pads on the die and to find the main gate array areas. Zooming in a little further, he was able to see the connections between the matrices of the AND and OR gates, which makes decoding the logic a relative snap, although the presence of what appears to be an output block with latching functions confounds this somewhat.

The end result is a full Verilog HDL file that reflects the original 8721 logic, which we think is a pretty neat trick. And we’d love it if our own [Bil Herd] could chime in on this; after all, he literally designed the C-128.

Video: Bil Herds Looks At Mitosis

I loved my science courses when I was in Junior High School; we leaned to make batteries, how molecules combine to form the world we see around us, and basically I got a picture of where we stood in the  scheme of things, though Quarks had yet to be discovered at the time.

In talking with my son I found out that there wasn’t much budget for Science learning materials in his school system like we had back in my day, he had done very little practical hands-on experiments that I remember so fondly. One of those experiments was to look and draw the stages of mitosis as seen under a Microscope. This was amazing to me back in the day, and cemented the wonder of seeing cell division into my memory to this day, much like when I saw the shadow of one of Jupiter’s moons with my own eyes!

Now I have to stop and tell you that I am not normal, or at least was not considered to be a typical young’un growing up near a river in rural Indiana in the 60’s. I had my own microscope; it quite simply was my pride and joy. I had gotten it while I was in the first or second grade as a present and I loved the thing. It was just horrible to use in its later years as lens displaced, the focus rack became looser if that was possible, and dirt accumulated on the internal lens; and yet I loved it and still have it to this day! As I write this, I realize that it’s the oldest thing that I own. (that and the book that came with it).

Today we have better tools and they’re pretty easy to come by. I want to encourage you to do some science with them. (Don’t just look at your solder joints!) Check out the video about seeing mitosis of onion cells through the microscope, then join me below for more on the topic!

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Chuck peddle father of 6502

Honoring Chuck Peddle; Father Of The 6502 And The Chips That Went With It

Chuck Peddle, the patriarch of the 6502 microprocessor, died recently. Most people don’t know the effect that he and his team of engineers had on their lives. We often take the world of microprocessor for granted as a commonplace component in computation device, yet there was a time when there were just processors, and they were the size of whole printed circuit boards.

Chuck had the wild idea while working at Motorola that they could shrink the expensive processor board down to an integrated circuit, a chip, and that it would cost much less, tens of dollars instead of ten thousand plus. To hear Chuck talk about it, he got a cease-and-desist letter from the part of Motorola that made their living selling $14,000 processor boards and to knock off all of the noise about a $25 alternative.

In Chuck’s mind this was permission to take his idea, and the engineering team, elsewhere. Chuck and his team started MOS Technologies in the 1970’s in Norristown PA, and re-purposed their work on the Motorola 6800 to become the MOS 6502. Lawsuits followed.

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