Your Own IBM Mainframe (or Vax, Or Cray…) The Easy Way

If you want the classic experience of working with an IBM mainframe or another classic computer like a DEC VAX, you have a few choices. You could spend a lot of money trying to find one, transport it, and refurbish it. But, of course, most of us will settle for an emulator. While there are great emulators out there, most of the time you aren’t interested in running just the bare machine — you want the operating systems, the compilers, and the other software that made these machines so interesting. Running your three lines of machine code isn’t as much fun as playing hunt the wumpus or compiling some Fortran IV code. Unfortunately, finding copies of all this old software can be daunting. But thanks to the efforts of [Rattydave], you can do it with no problems at all. The secret? Pre-built docker images that have everything you need in one place.

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Reliving Second-Hand Nostalgia With The PDP-11

Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution is something like required reading for the hacker subculture, and Hackaday by extension. The first section of that book is all about early hackers and their adventures with the PDP-1 at MIT. The PDP-11 has earned a special place in hacker history for being the minicomputer used to write the first Unix. We’re always amazed to find how many of our readers have stories about programming PDP microcomputers, usually the PDP-11. Those of us young enough to have missed out on the PDP experience often have something of a second-hand nostalgia for the old machines. An exceptionally detailed article over at Ars Technica promises to get us started reliving the glory days, even if it is for the first time.

It turns out that there’s an emulator for the old minicomputers, the History Simulator, abbreviated SimH. The article gives step-by-step instructions to get the emulator running, booting Unix 2.11 on a virtual PDP-11. The fun doesn’t stop there. The write-up includes an intro the the PDP-11 hardware, and a crash-course to assembly programming for the beast. It’s a great look at how the stack, branching, and subroutines work under the hood. Most of it still applies to computing today, so it really is worth the read.

Looking for more PDP-11 lore? Check out our coverage of DEC’s history.

The image above is “PDP-11” by ToastyKen, and is licensed under CC BY 2.0

History Of Digital Equipment Corp And Bonus PDP-11 Replica Build

[RetroBytes] takes us on a whirlwind tour of the history of the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), its founder Ken Olsen, and during intermission builds up a working replica of the PDP-11 from a kit. DEC was a major player in the early computer industry, cranking out a number of models that were both industrial workhorses and used in computer laboratories to develop many of the operating systems and tools whose descendants we still use today. On top of that, DEC’s innovative, employee-friendly, and lightweight company structure was generally well-liked by its employees and a welcomed departure from the typical behemoths of the day.

This video takes us from the beginnings of DEC and its roots in MIT up to the PIP-11 era, highlighting major architectures and events along the way such as the PDP-1, PDP-8, and PDP-11. [RetroBytes] says he has a DEC Alpha sitting on the sidelines, so there may be a few follow-up videos in the future — perhaps one on the VAX as well.

We’ve covered this particular PDP-11 replica last year, and if these replica kits are your cup of tea, check out our coverage of kit designer [Oscar Vermeulen]’s presentation. Have you ever used real PDP or VAX computers? Let us know your war stories in the comments below.

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Flip-Chip KiCad Templates

We like retro-computing and we like open source standards that allow easy project sharing. Vintage DEC computer enthusiast [Jay Logue] combines both of these in his recent project on GitHub, where he shares several KiCad templates for making your own Flip-Chip modules. Although named after the semiconductor packaging technique we are familiar with today, DEC Flip-Chips were introduced in 1964 as a modular electronics packaging system. These were used in many of DEC’s Programmable Data Processor (PDP) computers, beginning with the PDP-8 in 1965. DEC also had a Digital Laboratory Module family, which was a roll-your-own custom electronic system. The 1968 Digital Logic Handbook shows the available modules, and has the look and feel of the TTL Cookbook book which would come along six years later.

Flip-Chips came in a variety of sizes over the years: single-, double-, and quad-, and hex-height boards having standard- and extended-length. The PCB’s have 18 gold-plated fingers on one edge, later extended to 36 fingers double-sided, which plug into a backplane. Interconnections were typically wire-wrapped. A single height board is 127 x 62 mm (5 x 2-7/16 inches) with a labeled extractor bracket on one end. [Jay]’s repository has templates for five of the most popular variations, and making other sizes should be straightforward using these templates as a starting point.

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Inside A DEC Hard Drive

A lot of technology from the not-so-distant past doesn’t resemble modern versions very much. For a case in point, look at the DEC RS08 disk drive meant to pair with a circa 1970 PDP-8. Paired with an RF08 controller, this was state of the art, holding 262K 12-bit words with a blistering access speed of almost 63K/second unless you were plugged into 50Hz AC when it was closer to 50K/second. [Uniservo] had the disk unit, but not the controller. Someone else had a controller, but no disk drive. So [Uniservo] is shipping the disk to its new owner in a move worthy of a Reeses’ Peanutbutter Cup. The problem? The disk is super fragile and shipping is risky, so he decided to remove the platter for separate packing. Good thing for us, because we get a peek inside.

The nickel-cobalt platter looks like a thick LP record with heads underneath. As you might guess from the data transfer specification, the motor was just a common AC motor that rotated the platter against the head.

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Reproduction 1960s Computer Trainer Really Pushes Our Buttons

If you were selling computers in the early 1960s you faced a few problems, chief among them was convincing people to buy the fantastically expensive machines. But you also needed to develop an engineering force to build and maintain said machines. And in a world where most of the electrical engineers had cut their teeth on analog circuits built with vacuum tubes, that was no easy feat.

To ease the transition and develop some talent, Digital Equipment Corporation went all out with devices like the DEC H-500 Computer Lab, which retrocomputing wizard [Michael Gardi] is currently building a reproduction of. DEC’s idea was to provide a selection of logic gates, flip flops, and other elements of digital electronics that could be hooked together into more complicated circuits. We can practically see the young engineers in their white short-sleeve shirts and skinny ties laboring over the H-500 in a lab somewhere.

[Mike] is fortunate enough to have have access to an original H-500, but he wants anyone to be able to build one. His project page and the Instructables post go into great detail on how he made everything from the front panel to the banana plug jacks; almost everything in the build aside from the wood frame is custom 3D printed to mimic the original as much as possible. But the pièce de résistance is those delicious, butterscotch-colored DEC rocker switches. Taking some cues from custom switches he had previously built, he used reed switches and magnets to outfit the 3D printed rockers and make them look and feel like the originals. We can’t wait for the full PDP build.

Hats off to [Mike] for another stunning reproduction from the early years of the computer age. Be sure to check out his MiniVac 601 trainer, the Digi-Comp 1 mechanical computer, and the paperclip computer. If you’d like to pick [Mike’s] brain about this or any of his other incredible projects, he’ll be joining us for a Hack Chat in August.

Thanks to [Granzeier] for the tip!

An Entire PDP-11 On Your Bench

A PDP-11 at The National Museum Of Computing, Bletchley, UK.
A PDP-11 at The National Museum Of Computing, Bletchley, UK.

The DEC PDP series of minicomputers occupy a special place in computing history for us, because as the workhorses of commercial computing from the 1960s through to some time in the 1990s they provided the bedrock upon which so many of the computing technologies we take for granted today were built. If we think of any PDP, the chances are we’ll be imagining fridge-sized units with panels of blinkenlights that have become iconic in their own right. But that wasn’t the sum of PDP hardware, for at the end of the series of machines there were produced PDP-11s containing what had previously needed those fridge-sized units on a single chip-sized module. [Peter Schranz] had one of these modules, a DCJ11 that he’d salvaged in the 1990s, and he set to with it in making a modern desktop version of a PDP-11.

The PDP-11/hack is a PDP-11 as a set of daughter cards on a lightly modified Q-bus backplane. The DCJ11 and its memory sit on one, an emulated disc controller on another, and finally a multifunction board brings together clock and serial functions. Where the original would have had acres of 74 logic the PDP-11/hack uses more modern CPLDs and microcontrollers to provide glue logic and to emulate now-obsolete components. Given a serial terminal it will boot and run PDP operating systems and software, though it lacks a set of blinkenlights to display its status.

This isn’t the first PDP-11 using this chip we’ve shown you.