Go Forth With This Portable Programmer

When choosing a low-level language, it’s hard to beat the efficiency of Forth while also maintaining some amount of readability. There are open source options for the language which makes it accessible, and it maintains its prevalence in astronomical and other embedded systems for its direct hardware control and streamlined use of limited resources even though the language started over 50 years ago. Unlike 50 years ago, though, you can now take your own self-contained Forth programmer on the go with you.

The small computer is built on a design that [Dennis] built a while back called my4TH which has its own dedicated 8-bit CPU and can store data in a 256 kB EEPROM chip. Everything else needed for the computer is built in as well but that original design didn’t include a few features that this one adds, most notably a small 40×4 character LCD and a keyboard. The build also adds a case to tie everything together, with ports on the back for I2C and power plus an RS232 port. An optional battery circuit lets the computer power up without an external power supply as well.

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The World’s First DIY Minicomputer Was Almost Australian

The EDUC-8, a DIY minicomputer design that came out in “Electronics Australia” magazine, was almost the world’s first in August 1974. And it would have been tied for the world’s first if inventor [Jamieson “Jim” Rowe] hadn’t held back from publishing to rework the design to expand the memory to a full 256 bytes. The price of perfectionism?

Flash forward 50 years, and [Gwyllym Suter] has taken on the job of recreating the EDUC-8 using modern PCBs, but otherwise staying true to the all-TTL design. He has all of his schematics up on the project’s GitHub, but has also sent us a number of beauty shots that we’re including below. Other than the progress of PCB tech and the very nice 3D-printed housing, they look identical. We have to admit that we love those wavy hand-drawn traces on the original, but we wouldn’t be sad about not having to solder in all those jumpers.

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Inside A Mystery Aerospace Computer With [Ken Shirriff]

When life hands you a mysterious bit of vintage avionics, your best bet to identifying it might just be to get it in front of the biggest bunch of hardware hounds on the planet. After doing a teardown and some of your own investigation first, of course.

The literal black box in question came into [Ken Shirriff]’s custody courtesy of [David] from Usagi Electric, better known for his vacuum tube computer builds and his loving restoration of a Centurion minicomputer. The unit bears little in the way of identifying markings, but [Ken] was able to glean a little by inspecting the exterior. The keypad is a big giveaway; its chunky buttons seem optimized for use with the gloved hands of a pressure suit, and the ordinal compass points hint at a navigational function. The layout of the keypad is similar to the Apollo DSKY, which might make it a NASA artifact. Possibly contradicting all of that is the oddball but very cool electromechanical display, which uses reels of digits and a stepper-like motor to drive them.

Inside, more mysteries — and more clues — await. Unlike a recent flight computer [Ken] looked at, most of the guts are strictly electronic. The instrument is absolutely stuffed with PCBs, most of which are four-layer boards. Date codes on the hundreds of chips all seem to be in the 1967 range, dating the unit to the late 60s or early 70s. The weirdest bit is the core memory buried deep inside the stacks of logic and analog boards. [Ken] found 20 planes with the core, hinting at a 20-bit processor.

In the end, [Ken] was unable to come to any firm conclusion as to what this thing is, who made it, or what its purpose was. We doubt that his analysis will end there, though, and we look forward to the reverse engineering effort on this piece of retro magic.

Homebrew Computer From The Ground Up

Building a retro computer of some sort is a rite of passage for many of us, with some building replicas or restorations of old Commodores, Ataris, and other machines from decades past. Others go even further back, to the time of the Intel 8008 or earlier, and a dedicated few will build something completely novel. This project from [3DSage] falls squarely in the latter category, with his completely DIY computer built component by component from scratch, including the machine code needed to run it.

[3DSage] starts with the backbone of every computer: the clock. He first demonstrates how a pair of NOT gates with a set of capacitors can be used as a rudimentary clock pulse, then builds a more refined version with a 555 timer and potentiometer for adjustable rates. Then, it’s on to creating a binary counter, which is a fundamental part of the memory system for this small computer, and finally, allows this circuitry to behave like a normal computer. Using a set of switches to store values in memory and stepping through them with the clock, the computer can be programmed to do plenty of tasks just like a modern microcontroller.

[3DSage] built this project a few years ago and has used it for real-world applications such as controlling servos, LED arrays, playing music, and other tasks. Although he has to program it using his own machine code by hand, it’s a usable computer in many ways. If you want to eschew modernity and build a retro computer in the style of the 1960s, though, this piece goes through what it would have been like to build a similar system in the era when these computers were more common. If you have a switch fetish, you might like to see how real computers worked back then, too.

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Keep Tabs On PC Use With Custom Analog Voltmeter

With the demands of modern computing, from video editing, streaming, and gaming, many of us will turn to a monitoring system of some point to keep tabs on CPU usage, temperatures, memory, and other physical states of our machines. Most are going to simply display on the screen but this data can be sent to external CPU monitors as well. This retro-styled monitor built on analog voltmeters does a great job of this and adds some flair to a modern workstation as well.

The build, known as bbMonitor, is based on the ESP32 platform which controls an array of voltmeters via PWM. The voltmeters have been modified with a percentage display to show things like CPU use percentage. Software running on the computers sends this data in real time to the ESP32 so the computer’s behavior can be viewed at a glance. Each voltmeter is also augmented with RGB LEDs that change color from green to red as use increases as well. The project’s creator, [Corebb], also notes that the gauges will bounce around if the computer is under heavy load but act more linearly when under constant load, also helping to keep an eye on computer status.

While the build does seem to rely on a Windows machine to run the software for export to the monitor, all of the code is open-sourced and available on the project’s GitHub page and could potentially be adapted for other operating systems. And, as far as the voltmeters themselves go, there have been similar projects in the past that use stepper motors as a CPU usage monitor instead.

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Fictional Computers: The Three Body Problem

If you intend to see the Netflix series “The Three Body Problem” or you want to read the Hugo-winning story from Chinese author [Cixin Liu], then you should probably bookmark this post and stop reading immediately. There will be some mild spoilers. You have been warned.

While the show does have some moments that will make your science brain cringe, there is one scene that shows a computer that could actually be built. Would it be practical? Probably not in real life, but in the context provided by the show, it was perfectly feasible. It could have, however, been done a little better, but the idea was — like many great ideas — both deceptively simple and amazingly profound. The computer was made of human beings. I’m not talking like Dune’s mentats — humans with super brains augmented by drugs or technology. This is something very different.


This is your last chance. There are spoilers ahead, although I’ll try to leave out as much as I can. In the story, top scientists receive a mysterious headset that allows them to experience totally immersive holodeck-style virtual reality. When they put the headset on, they are in what appears to be a game. The game puts you in a historical location — the court of Henry VIII or Ghengis Kahn. However, this Earth has three suns. The planet is sometimes in a nicely habitable zone and sometimes is not. The periods when the planet is uninhabitable might have everything bursting into flames or freezing, or there might not be sufficient gravity to hold them on the planet’s surface. (Although I’ll admit, I found that one hard to grasp.)

Apparently, the inhabitants of this quasi-Earth can hibernate through the “chaotic eras” and wait for the next “stable era” that lasts a long time. The problem, as you probably know, is that there is no general closed-form solution for the three-body problem. Of course, there are approximations and special cases, but it isn’t easy to make long-term predictions about the state of three bodies, even with modern computers.

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Building A Mouse That’s Also A Computer

Once upon a time, a computer was a big metal brick of a thing that sat on or next to your desk. Now, it’s possible to fit decent computing power into a board the size of a stick of gum. [Electo] took advantage of this to build an entire computer into a mouse form factor.

[Electo] had tried this before years ago, and built something pretty sloppy. This time, he wanted to build a version that had an actually-legible screen and fit better in the hand. He whipped up a giant 3D-printed mouse housing, and fitted the sensor board from an optical mouse inside. That was hooked up to an Intel NUC PC that fits inside the housing. A small LCD screen was then installed on a rack system that lets it pop out the front of the mouse. Data entry is via a laser keyboard mounted in the side of the mouse.

Of course, being based on an Intel NUC means the thing was the size of a couple of phonebooks. That’s not really a mouse. Starting again, he reworked the build around a tiny palm-sized computer running Windows 11. It was stripped out of its case and wedged into a compact 3D-printed housing only slightly larger than a typical mouse. It has a keyboard of a sort – really it’s just an array of buttons covering W, A, S, D, and a couple others for playing simple games. Amazingly, it’ll even run Minecraft or Fortnight if you really want to try and squint at that tiny screen.

Having a computer with a screen that moves every time you move the mouse isn’t ideal. At the same time, it’s fun to see someone explore a fun (and silly) form factor. It’s interesting to see how the project works compared to the original version from a few years ago. Video after the break.

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