Getting Started with Blinking Lights on Old Iron

If you ever go to a computer history museum, you’ll be struck by how bland most modern computers look. Prior to 1980 computers had lights and switches, and sometimes dials and meters. Some had switchboard-like wiring panels and some even had oscilloscope-like displays. There’s something about a machine with all those switches and lights and displays that gets your hacker juices flowing. Have you ever wanted to get started in retrocomputing? Is it difficult? Do you need a lot of money? That depends on what your goals are.

There are at least three ways you can go about participating in retrocomputing: You can pony up the money to buy actual antique computers, you can build or buy old computers recreated with anywhere from zero to one hundred percent of period-authentic components, or you can experiment with emulators that run on a modern computer. As a hybrid of the second and third option there are also emulations in FPGAs.

You can see that the first option can be very expensive and you will probably have to develop a lot of repair and restoration skills. Watching [Mattis Lind] twiddle the bits on an actual PDP-8 in the clip above is great, but you’ll need to work up to it. The two techniques which get you going without the original hardware don’t have to break the bank or even cost anything presuming you already have a PC.

Although some sneer at emulation, for some machines it is almost the only way to go. You couldn’t buy the original EDSAC, for example. It is also a good way to get started without a lot of expense or risk. But regardless of how you do it, there’s one thing in common: you have to know how to operate the thing.

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The PDP-1: The Machine that Started Hacker Culture

One of my bucket list destinations is the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California — I know, I aim high. I’d be chagrined to realize that my life has spanned a fair fraction of the Information Age, but I think I’d get a kick out of seeing the old machines, some of which I’ve actually laid hands on. But the machines I’d most like to see are the ones that predate me, and the ones that contributed to the birth of the hacker culture in which I and a lot of Hackaday regulars came of age.

If you were to trace hacker culture back to its beginning, chances are pretty good that the machine you’d find at the root of it all is the Digital Equipment Corporation’s PDP-1. That’s a tall claim for a machine that was introduced in 1959 and only sold 53 units, compared to contemporary offerings from IBM that sold tens of thousands of units. And it’s true that the leading edge of the explosion of digital computing in the late 50s and early 60s was mainly occupied by “big iron” machines, and that mainframes did a lot to establish the foundations for all the advances that were to come.

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A Modern Day PDP-11 Front End

Hands up if you feel your spiritual home is in front of a terminal with a “DIGITAL” logo on it.  It’s a name that has long ago been subsumed into first Compaq and then by extension HP, but it’s one with a lot of history when it comes to computing.

From the start of the electronic computing age, there were the computers we’d probably now describe as mainframes. Big computers that cost the GDP of a small country, filled an entire floor of a building, and could only be found in government departments, universities, and large companies. By the 1960s, the technologies existed to build computers that broke this mould, could be bought within the budget of a smaller organisation, and for which you didn’t need a huge air-conditioned basement to house. These so-called minicomputers were the great revolution of that era because they bought the fruits of computing into everyday business, and probably the most successful of the companies that produced them was the Maynard, Massachusetts-based Digital Equipment Corporation, or DEC.

DEC produced a succession of minicomputers in their PDP line, of which the most successful was their PDP-11 series. These were 16-bit minicomputers that remained in their product line from their launch in 1970 through to the early 1990s, and were available in a succession of configurations and physical form factors. The famous view of a PDP-11 is of a set of floor-to-ceiling racks, but there were also standalone terminal models, and desktop models. One of these, a PDP-11/03 from 1975, has come into the hands of [Joerg], and he’s used it to craft his LSIbox, the PDP11/03 card frame packaged with a BeagleBone for access via a modern-day interface. It’s a build in the vein of modern tube audio amplifiers that feature the retro hardware on the top of their cases, the card frame is exposed as a feature on top of a white case that is featureless except for a genuine PDP-11/03 front panel.

You might ask why anyone would do this in order to run PDP-11 software when the BeagleBone could almost certainly emulate the vintage hardware much faster than the real thing. But to take that view is to miss the point; the PDP-11 series are a seminal part of computing history, and to have genuine PDP-11 hardware on your desk is quite an achievement.

We’ve shown you a few PDP-11 projects in the past. There was this minimalist PDP-11 implementation using one of the later integrated PDP-11 processors, and we’ve seen a faithful reproduction of an earlier PDP-11 front panel powered by a Raspberry Pi.

Hackaday Links: January 8, 2017

What do you get when mindless automatons with no capacity for reason or logic converse? While you discuss that in the comments, here are two chatbots on Twitch. The highlights? A few hours ago they were doing the cutesy couple, “‘I love you more!’, ‘No, I love you more!'” thing. This was ended by, “Error, cannot connect to server.” Even robot love is not eternal.

3D printer nozzles wear out. Put a few hundred hours on a brass nozzle, and you’re not going to get the same print quality as when you started. This has led to stainless and silly-con carbide nozzles. Now there’s a ruby nozzle. It’s designed by [Anders Olsson], the same guy who’s using an Ultimaker to print neutron shielding. This guy is a nuclear engineer, and he knows his stuff. This is a nozzle designed to not grind contaminants into extruded plastic, and it looks cool, too.

This is the eighth day of the year, but the guild of independent badge makers of DEF CON are already hard at work. AND!XOR is working on the DC25 badge, that promises to be bigger, badder, and more Bender. I’m loving the Hunter S. Bender theme.

Anyone can design a PCB, but how do you panelize multiple PCBs? There’s a lot to consider – routing, mouse bites, and traces for programming the board while still panelized. This is the best solution we’ve seen. It’s a GUI that allows you to organize Gerbers on a panel, rotate them, add routes and cutouts, and generally do everything a board house does. It’s all Open Source and everything is available on GitHub.

[ducksauz] found a very old ‘computer trainer’ on eBay. It’s a DEC H-500, built to explain the basics of digital electronics and semiconductors to a room full of engineering students. It is an exceptionally beautiful piece of equipment with lovely hand-drawn traces and ‘surface mounted’ 7400 chips mounted on the back side.

A PDP-11 On A Chip

If you entered the world of professional computing sometime in the 1960s or 1970s there is a high probability that you would have found yourself working on a minicomputer. These were a class of computer smaller than the colossal mainframes of the day, with a price tag that put them within the range of medium-sized companies and institutions rather than large corporations or government-funded entities. Physically they were not small machines, but compared to the mainframes they did not require a special building to house them, or a high-power electrical supply.

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

One of the most prominent among the suppliers of minicomputers was Digital Equipment Corporation, otherwise known as DEC. Their PDP line of machines dominated the market, and can be found in the ancestry of many of the things we take for granted today. The first UNIX development in 1969 for instance was performed on a DEC PDP-7.

DEC’s flagship product line of the 1970s was the 16-bit PDP-11 series, launched in 1970 and continuing in production until sometime in the late 1990s. Huge numbers of these machines were sold, and it is likely that nearly all adults reading this have at some time or other encountered one at work even if we are unaware that the supermarket till receipt, invoice, or doctor’s appointment slip in our hand was processed on it.

During that over-20-year lifespan of course DEC did not retain the 74 logic based architecture of the earliest model. Successive PDP-11 generations featured ever greater integration of their processor, culminating by the 1980s in the J-11, a CMOS microprocessor implementation of a PDP-11/70. This took the form of two integrated circuits mounted on a large 60-pin DIP ceramic wafer. It was one of these devices that came the way of [bhilpert], and instead of retaining it as a curio he decided to see if he could make it work.

The PDP-11 processors had a useful feature: a debugging console built into their hardware. This means that it should be a relatively simple task to bring up a PDP-11 processor like the J-11 without providing the rest of the PDP-11 to support it, and it was this task that he set about performing. Providing a 6402 UART at the address expected of the console with a bit of 74 glue logic, a bit more 74 for an address latch, and a couple of  6264 8K by 8 RAM chips gave him a very simple but functional PDP-11 on a breadboard. He found it would run with a clock speed as high as 11MHz, but baulked at a 14MHz crystal. He suggests that the breadboard layout may be responsible for this. Hand-keying a couple of test programs, he was able to demonstrate it working.

We’ve seen a lot of the PDP-11 on these pages over the years. Of note are a restoration of a PDP-11/04, this faithful reproduction of a PDP-11 panel emulated with the help of a Raspberry Pi, and an entire PDP-11 emulated on an AVR microcontroller. We have indeed come a long way.

Thanks [BigEd] for the tip.

Hackaday Prize Entry: Autorouters Are For The Weak

[Yann]’s DYPLED entry into this year’s Hackaday Prize isn’t very useful to most people. It’s a tiny module that connects to a 16-bit parallel bus, and displays a hexadecimal number on a few LEDs. It’s useful if you’re diagnosing a problem on a computer from 1982, but just barely. The real wonder here is how [Yann] is doing this cheaply and easily using some weird techniques and strange parts.

The display for this tiny device is an array of 36 LEDs, arranged into a set of five seven-segment displays. Homebrew seven-segment displays are cool, but how is he driving it? Not with a microcontroller, that’s for sure. Instead, [Yann] is using an old trick of using parallel memory to store the patterns of the seven-segment displays. This parallel memory comes in the form of a two megabit Flash chip, with the data inputs tied to the 16-bit input on the board and the data outputs connected directly to the LEDs. It’s a brute force approach, but it works.

There are a few additional features for this tiny board, including a switch to display a 16-bit bus in hexadecimal or decimal, signed or unsigned, and a pot to change how bright the LEDs are. The most amazing part is how [Yann] managed to fit all of this on a very, very small PCB. Most of that trick is due to using a thin, small TSSOP package for the Flash memory, but fitting this circuit onto a two layer board is amazing work, and a great entry for the Hackaday Prize.

VCF East X: The World’s Largest USB Thumb Drive

The Vintage Computer Festival last weekend featured racks and racks of old minicomputers, enough terminals for an entire lab, and enough ancient storage devices to save a YouTube video. These storage devices – hard disks, tape readers, and 8″ disk drives – were only connected to vintage hardware, with one exception: a DEC RL02 drive connected to a modern laptop via USB.

The DEC RL02 drive is the closest you’re going to get to a modern mechanical hard drive with these old machines. It’s a huge rack unit with removable platters that can hold 10 Megabytes of storage. [Chris] found one of these old drives and because he wanted to get into FPGA development, decided to create a USB adapter for this huge, old drive.

The hardware isn’t too terribly complex, with a microcontroller and an FPGA that exposes the contents of the drive over USB mass storage. For anyone trying to bootstrap a PDP-11 or -8 system, [Chris] could download disk images from the Internet, write them to the disk, and load up the contents of the drive from the minicomputer. Now, he’s using it with SimH to have a physical drive for an emulated system, but the controller really doesn’t care about what format the disk pack is in. If [Chris] formatted a disk pack with a FAT file system, he would have the world’s largest and heaviest USB thumb drive in the world.

Video below.

Update: As promised, [Chris] put all the code in a git

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