Queen Victoria’s Secret (Teletype And COSMAC Elf)

We don’t really think anyone in the Victorian era had a COSMAC Elf — the homebrew computer based around the RCA 1802 CPU. But if they did, it might have looked like [Daniel Ross’] steampunk recreation of the system that includes an appropriate-looking teletype device. You can see the thing in a series of videos, below. There are actually quite a few videos showing different parts of the system, along with several blog postings stretching back a few months.

A magic eye tube doesn’t look out of place in this build. We especially liked the glass tube displays and the speaker, although we thought the USS Enterprise looked out of place with the technology based on stone knives and bearskins, to paraphrase Mr. Spock. On the plus side, the VFD displays have the right glowing look, although a Nixie would have been pretty good there, too.

The videos don’t have much detail, but the blog posts do if you wanted to attempt something similar. Honestly, 1802 system design is pretty easy thanks to the its on-chip DMA that allows you to load memory from switches with no actual software like a monitor. The teletype started out life as a Remington #7 from around 1900, although another newer machine donated parts to get everything working. It is a testament to how well things were built then that it took as much abuse as it did and still has working parts.

We have a soft spot for the 1802 — it was a very good design for its time. We’ve even gone as far as to simulate it.

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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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COSMAC ELF Lives Again, In FPGA

Looking around at the personal computing markets in modern times, there seem to be a lot of choices in the market. In reality, though, almost everything runs on hardware from a very small group of companies, and software is often available across platforms. This wasn’t the case in the personal computing boom of the 70s and 80s, where different computers were wildly different in hardware and even architecture. The Cosmac ELF was one of the more interesting specimens from this era, and this one has been meticulously reproduced on an FPGA.

The original hardware was based on an RCA 1802 microprocessor and had a rudimentary (by today’s standards) set of switches and buttons as the computer’s inputs. It was low cost, even for the time, but was one of the first single-board computers available. This recreation is coded in SpinalHDL and the simplicity of the original hardware makes it relatively easy to understand. The FPGA is cycle-accurate to the original hardware, too, which makes it nearly perfect even without any of the original hardware.

The project’s creator, [Winston] aka [wel97459], found that SpinalHDL made this project fun to work on (and released his code on his GitHub page), and was able to get the code down to just 1500 lines to recreate the original hardware. It’s very impressive, and also an accessible read for anyone interested in some of the more unique computers offered during the early computer renaissance in the 70s.

KIM-1 To COSMAC Elf Conversion — Sort Of

In the mid-1970s, if you had your own computer, you probably built it. If you had a lot of money and considerable building skill, you could make an Altair 8800 for about $395 — better than the $650 to have it built. However, cheaper alternatives were not far behind.

In 1976, Popular Electronics published plans for a computer called the COSMAC Elf which you could build for under $100, and much less if you had a good junk box. The design was simple enough that you could build it on a piece of perf board or using wire wrap. We featured the online archive of the entire Popular Electronics collection, but hit up page 33 of this PDF if you want to jump right to the article that started it all. The COSMAC Elf is a great little machine built around a 40-pin RCA 1802 processor, and for many was the first computer they owned. I lost my original 1802 computer in a storm and my recent rebuild in another completely different kind of storm. But there is a way to reclaim those glory days without starting from scratch.  I’m going to repurpose another retro-computing recreation; the KIM-1.

I’ll admit it, Rewiring a real KIM-1 to take an 1802 CPU would be difficult and unnecessary and that’s not what this article is about. However, I did have a KIM UNO — [Oscar’s] respin of the classic computer using an Arduino mini pro. Looking at the keyboard, it occurred to me that the Arduino could just as easily simulate an 1802 as it could a 6502. Heck, that’s only two digits different, right?

The result is pretty pleasing. A “real” Elf had 8 toggle switches, but there were several variations that did have keypads, so it isn’t that far off. Most Elf computers had 256 bytes of memory (without an upgrade) but the 1802 UNO (as I’m calling it) has 1K. There’s also a host of other features, including a ROM and a monitor for loading and debugging programs that doesn’t require any space in the emulated 1802.

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COSMAC Elf Calculator Gets New Firmware

Everyone remembers their first. Their first CPU, that is. For many of us, it was the RCA 1802 thanks to the COSMAC Elf articles that ran in Popular Electronics. The later versions of the chip family were much better but were never as popular, but the 1805 did find its way into a printing calculator for dimensions from a company named Boyd. Some of these recently showed up on the surplus market and–of course–were subsequently hacked.

[Bill Rowe] is active in the groups that still work with the 1802. Because of some specialized uses you can still get the chips readily, some four decades after they were new. Other computers at the time were difficult to build and relatively expensive, while for $100 almost anyone could wire wrap a simple 1802-based computer together in a weekend or less.

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Vintage COSMAC Elf Is Pretty Close To Original

Popular Electronics was famous for the article introducing the Altair 8800 back in 1975 (well, the cover date was 1975; it really came out in late 1974). That was so popular (no pun intended), that they ran more computer construction articles, including the SWTPC 680 late in 1975. But in 1976 a very popular article ran on building a very simple computer called the COSMAC ELF. [Youtubba] had an Altair, but always wanted a “cute” COSMAC ELF. Now, forty-something years later, he finally got around to it. He made the very detailed video about his experience, below.

Surprisingly, he didn’t have to look very hard for too many of the components as most of them were available from Digikey. He had to get compatible RAM chips, the 1802 CPU and LED displays. He also couldn’t find a look-alike crystal, so he used a fake one and a hidden oscillator. The result looks awfully close to the original. He even did a nice front panel using Front Panel Express.

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Understanding DMA

In the world of computers, the central processing unit (CPU) is–well–central. Your first computer course probably explained it like the brain of the computer. However, sometimes you can overload that brain and CPU designers are always trying to improve both speed and throughput using a variety of techniques. One of those methods is DMA or direct memory access.

As the name implies, DMA is the ability for an I/O device to transfer data directly to or from memory. In some cases, it might actually transfer data to another device, but not all DMA systems support that. Sounds simple, but the devil is in the details. There’s a lot of information in this introduction to DMA by [Andrei Chichak]. It covers different types of DMA and the tradeoffs involved in each one.

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