The RUM 80 – a home brew Z80 computer built from scratch

[M] recently tipped us off about hacker [Lumir Vanek] from the Czech Republic. Between 1985 and 1989, [Lumir] built his own home brew, Z80 based computer. The list of home computers available in the 1980’s is extensive. Those living in western Europe and the Americas could choose offerings from Acorn, Apple, Commodore, Atari, Radio Shack, and Sinclair Research to name just a few. Even the erstwhile Czechoslovakia had home computers available from Didaktik and Tesla.

[Lumir]’s built was based around the Z80 processor and is built using regular, double-sided, prototyping board. It featured the 8-bit Z80 processor CPU, 8kB EPROM with monitor and BASIC, two Z80 CTC timers, an 8255 parallel interface for keyboard and external connector, 64kB DRAM, and Video output in black & white, 40×25 characters, connected to a TV. The enclosure is completely made from copper clad laminate. [Lumir] documented the schematics, but there is no board layout – since the whole thing was discrete wired. He even built the membrane keyboard – describing it as “layers of cuprextit, gum, paper with painted keys and transparent film”. When he ran out of space on the main board, he built an expansion board. This had an 8251 serial interface for cassette deck, one 8-bit D/A converter, and an 8255 parallel port connected to the “one pin” BT100 printer.

On the software side, he wrote his own monitor program, which allowed simple interactions, such as displaying and modifying registers, memory, I/O ports and to run programs. He wrote this from scratch referring to the Z80 instruction set for help. Later he added a CP/M emulator. Since the Z80 had dual registers, one was used for user interaction, while the other was reserved to allow background printing. Eventually, he even managed to port BASIC to his system.

Check out [Martin Malý]’s awesome article Home Computers behind the Iron Curtain and the follow up article on Peripherals behind the  Iron Curtain, where you can read more about the “one pin” BT100 printer.

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Peripherals Behind The Iron Curtain

The article Home Computers Behind the Iron Curtain sparked a lot of interest, which made me very happy. Therefore, I decided to introduce more computer curiosities from the Iron Curtain period, especially from the former Czechoslovakia (CSSR).

As I mentioned in the previous article, the lack of spare parts, literature and technology in Czechoslovakia forced geeks to solve it themselves: by improvisation and what we would today call “hacking.”  Hobbyist projects of one person or a small party was eventually taken over by a state-owned enterprise, which then began to manufacture and deliver to stores with some minor modifications. These projects most often involved a variety of peripherals that could only be found in the Czechoslovakia with great difficulty.

Much like the production of components, the production of peripherals was also distributed throughout the eastern block so that each country was specializing in certain types of peripherals. For example, East Germany produced matrix printers, and Bulgaria made floppy disks drives. This meant industrial enterprises had to wait for vital computer parts, because the production in another country was not sufficient to cover even the local requirements, let alone the home user.

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Home Computers Behind The Iron Curtain

I was born in 1973 in Czechoslovakia. It was a small country in the middle of Europe, unfortunately on the dark side of the Iron Curtain. We had never been a part of Soviet Union (as many think), but we were so-called “Soviet Satellite”, side by side with Poland, Hungary, and East Germany.

My hobbies were electronics and – in the middle of 80s – computers. The history of computers behind the Iron Curtain is very interesting, with a lot of unusual moments. For example – communists at first called cybernetics as “bourgeois’ pseudoscience” (as well as sociology or semiotics), “used to enslave a mankind by machines”. But later on they understood the importance of computers, primarily for science and army. So in 50s the Eastern Bloc started to build its own computers, separately and “in its own way.”

The biggest problem was a lack of modern technologies. There were a lot of skilled and clever people in eastern countries, but they had a lot of problems with the elementary technical things. Manufacturing of electronics parts was divided into diverse countries of Comecon – The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. In reality, it led to an absurd situation: You could buy the eastern copy of Z80 (made in Eastern Germany as U880D), but you couldn’t buy 74LS00 at the same time. Yes, a lot of manufacturers made it, but “it is out of stock now; try to ask next year”. So “make a computer” meant 50 percent of electronics skills and 50 percent of unofficial social network and knowledge like “I know a guy who knows a guy and his neighbor works in a factory, where they maybe have a material for PCBs” at those times.

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