A breadboard filled with logic chips and wiring

SPAM-1 Is A Well-Documented Discrete CPU With An Impressive Software Library

Here at Hackaday we love projects that are so well-documented that you can spend days reading up on what the designer has achieved. [John Lonergan] didn’t disappoint when he designed the SPAM-1, an 8-bit CPU built from discrete logic gates. His detailed log contains a wealth of information on such things as designing opcodes, optimizing program counter logic, running a digital simulation, as well as his thoughts on microcode design. The sheer volume of it may be a bit off-putting to beginners, so it might be best to start with the video series that describes the architecture and goes into detail on several sub-blocks.

The design has changed a bit since [John] first started on the project, as he decided to add more and more features, but the final result is a well-thought out architecture that keeps the simplicity needed for discrete hardware but still has enough features to keep it interesting for seasoned CPU aficionados. The instruction size is rather large (48 bits) to simplify the instruction decoding at the expense of larger code size. Conditional jump instructions are not present; instead, all instructions have an optional control flag to make them conditional, a feature inspired by the ARM instruction set.

Once the design was mature enough, [John] modelled the entire thing in Verilog and simulated his design to verify correct operation and to check the timings, estimating it to be workable up to 5 MHz or so. A large stack of breadboards and DIP chips from the 74xx series then brought the design to life.

Not content with simply designing, simulating and implementing a custom CPU in hardware, [John] also spent significant effort on the software side of things, writing an assembler and even a C-like compiler for the SPAM-1 platform. And if that wasn’t enough, he also added an emulator for the classic CHIP-8 language, which allows it to run existing programs like Pong and Tetris. Input and output for all this software is mostly through a UART connection to a PC. A VGA interface is still on [John]’s to-do list, but he did build an adapter to connect a classic NES controller to the system.

The SPAM-1 is a worthy addition to the long list of discrete-logic CPUs we’ve seen here, such as this breadboard computer running a UNIX-like OS or this minimalistic one. If you’d like to see one that implements an existing instruction set, try this homebrew RISC-V computer.

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Inside CHIP-8

Certain old computers — most frequently those using the RCA 1802 — were fond of using an early form of byte-code interpreter for programs, especially games. The interpreter, CHIP-8, was very simple to create but offered high-level features that were tedious to recreate in the native assembly language. Because there are a fair number of simple games written in CHIP-8, there are of course, emulators for it, and [River Gillis] decided to look inside the CHIP-8 byte code interpreter.

Part of the power of CHIP-8 was it only had 35 virtual instructions. That was important when you were trying to shoehorn a game and the interpreter into a very small memory. Remember, in those days 1K of memory wasn’t an unusual number, although the prototypical CHIP-8 host would have 4K.

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