Scott’s CPU From The Bottom Up

It isn’t for everyone, but if you work much with computers at a low level, you’ll probably sooner or later entertain the idea of creating your own CPU. There was a time when that was a giant undertaking, but with today’s tools and FPGAs it is… well, not easy, but certainly easier. If you have the urge to try your own, you might have a look at [Simply Explained’s] video series called “Building Scott’s CPU.

The 11 videos cover everything from basic transistor logic to sequential circuits and moves on to things like ALUs, clock units, and how jump instructions work.

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Al Williams Tells All In The Logic Simulation Hack Chat

The list of requirements for hosting one of our weekly Hack Chats is pretty short: you’ve got to be knowledgeable, passionate, and above all else, willing to put those two quantities on display for a group of like-minded strangers. Beyond that, we’re not too picky. From industry insider to weekend hobbyist, high school dropout to double doctorate, if you’ve got something interesting to talk about, we’re ready to listen.

But in casting a such a wide net, we occasionally forget that we’ve got a considerable collection of potential hosts within our own worldwide roster of contributors. Among this cast of characters, few can boast the same incredible body of knowledge as Al Williams, who was able to pencil in some time this week to host the Logic Simulation Hack Chat.

Or at least, that was the idea. In reality the Chat covered a wide range of topics, and was peppered with fascinating anecdotes pulled from Al’s decades of experience in the field. Though to be fair, we expected no less. He was building hardware before many of us were born, and can take credit for designs that have been at the bottom of the ocean as well as launched into orbit. He’s been writing about it just as long too, with articles of his appearing in iconic print magazines such as Dr. Dobb’s Journal.

Al has seen and done so much that he still surprises us with the occasional nugget, and we’ve been working with him for years. It was only a week or two back that he started a story with “Back when I used to manage a gas pipeline…” in the middle of a conversation about utility metering.

Of course, that’s not to say some technical discussion didn’t sneak in there from time to time. Sure Al’s  recollection of how they used to literally crawl over the schematics for the 68000 back at Motorola might stick out as a particular high point, but he also explains his personal preference for vendor-specific software tools over their more generic open source counterparts. He also draws comparisons between hardware description languages (HDLs) like Verilog and parametric CAD tools such as OpenSCAD in the way that they help model complex relationships in ways that can’t be easily done by more traditional means.

At one point the conversation lingers on the design and production of application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs), and how they compare to field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). Traditionally ASICs have been out of reach for the hobbyist, but with the recent collaboration between Google and SkyWater Technology to create an open source process design kit (PDK), they’re now within the capabilities of a dedicated individual. Matt Venn spoke on the topic during Remoticon 2021, and it’s good to see more folks in the community openly discussing the possibilities of custom silicon designed by hackers.

From there, things start really getting wild. From dreaming of virtual reality circuit simulators that let you fly amongst your creations like in Tron, to salivating over high-end technologies such as reflective memory, this Chat really runs the gamut. But then, that’s sort of why we hold them in the first place. Whether you actively participate or are just along for the ride, the Hack Chat gives everyone in the community a chance to gather around a virtual water cooler with fascinating characters that you won’t find anywhere else.


The Hack Chat is a weekly online chat session hosted by leading experts from all corners of the hardware hacking universe. It’s a great way for hackers connect in a fun and informal way, but if you can’t make it live, these overview posts as well as the transcripts posted to Hackaday.io make sure you don’t miss out.

A PNG Based Circuit Simulator

We’re sure thousands of hours have been spent in Minecraft implementing digital logic. Inspired by that, [lynnpepin] created a digital logic simulator named Reso that is based on pixels rather than voxels.

There are a few clever things here. First, different colors represent different parts. There are three different colors of wire, output and input wires, XOR gates, and AND gates. OR gates are just output wires, which or all the input wires together. By implementing these gates, Reso is, by definition, Turing complete. Since it’s just a PNG, it is trivial to open it up in GIMP and copy and paste one bit of the circuit multiple times. The different color wires are mainly to help route in a 2d plane, as you don’t have vias. Currently, the image compiles into a graph that is executed. [Lynn] chose code readability and ease of prototyping over premature optimization, so the code isn’t particularly fast. But it is pretty fun, squinting at the pixels that make up the adders and clocks he has on his blog. After giving Reso your image, it outputs a series of images that enumerate the state for several states.

The code is available on Github, and a Rust version has already been written that offers some impressive speed improvements at the expense of not being at feature parity yet. If MS-Paint isn’t your IDE of choice, perhaps a more Javascript-based digital logic simulator might be more to your taste.

TTL Simulator In JavaScript

How do you celebrate your YouTube channel passing the 7400 subscriber mark? If you are [Low Level JavaScript], the answer is obvious: You create a 7400 TTL logic simulator in JavaScript. The gate simulations progress from simple gates up to flipflops and registers. You could probably build a 7400-based computer virtually with this code.

In addition to just being fun and interesting, there were a lot of links of interest in the video (see below) and its comments. For one, someone watching the channel took the code and made a Verilog-like IDE that is impressive.

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A Modern Take On The “Paperclip Computer”

Back in 1968, a book titled “How to Build a Working Digital Computer” claimed that the sufficiently dedicated reader could assemble their own functioning computer at home using easily obtainable components. Most notably, the design utilized many elements that were fashioned from bent paperclips. It’s unclear how many readers actually assembled one of these so-called “Paperclip Computers”, but today we’re happy to report that [Mike Gardi] has completed his interpretation of the 50+ year old homebrew computer.

A view behind the computer’s ALU

The purist might be disappointed to see how far [Mike] has strayed from the original, but we see his embrace of modern construction techniques as a necessary upgrade. He’s recreated the individual computer components as they were described in the book, but this time plywood and wheat bulbs have given way to 3D printed panels and LEDs. While the details may be different, the end goal is the same: a programmable digital computer on a scale that can be understood by the operator.

To say that [Mike] did a good job of documenting his build would be an understatement. He’s spent the last several months covering every aspect of the build on Hackaday.io, giving his followers a fantastic look at what goes into a project of this magnitude. He might not have bent many paperclips for his Working Digital Computer (WDC-1), but he certainly designed and fabricated plenty of impressive custom components. We wouldn’t be surprised if some of them, such as the 3D printed slide switch we covered last month, started showing up in other projects.

While the WDC-1 is his latest and certainly greatest triumph, [Mike] is no stranger to recreating early digital computers. We’ve been bringing you word of his impressive replicas for some time now, and each entry has been even more impressive than the last. With the WDC-1 setting the bar so high, we can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

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Learn Digital Logic By Alien Abduction

Some of the best educational material we’ve seen tells a story. There’s something more fun about reading a story than just absorbing a bunch of dry facts. That’s the idea behind Adventures in Logic Land. In the first episode, you are abducted by aliens trying to decide if humans are intelligent. To prove that, you have to work a series of logic puzzles.

The approach is a little unorthodox. You are shown a live logic simulation (spoiler: it is a NOR gate) and you have to fill in a truth table. The gates use alien symbols which contributes to the storyline but perhaps isn’t the best choice from an educational perspective. Besides, they already use red for zero and green for one which seems a little culturally-specific. The next test shows you how to build your own little simulations and run tests to see if they meet the alien’s criteria.

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Behind The Pin: Logic Level Outputs

There is one thing that unites almost every computer and logic circuit commonly used in the hardware hacking and experimentation arena. No matter what its age, speed, or internal configuration, electronics speak to the world through logic level I/O. A single conductor which is switched between voltage levels to denote a logic 1 or logic zero. This is an interface standard that has survived the decades from the earliest integrated circuit logic output of the 1960s to the latest microcontroller GPIO in 2018.

The effect of this tried and true arrangement is that we can take a 7400 series I/O port on an 8-bit microcomputer from the 1970s and know with absolute confidence that it will interface without too much drama to a modern single-board computer GPIO. When you think about it, this is rather amazing.

It’s tempting to think then that all logic level outputs are the same, right? And of course they are from a certain viewpoint. Sure, you may need to account for level shifting between for example 5V and 3.3V families but otherwise just plug, and go, right? Of course, the real answer isn’t quite that simple. There are subtle electrical differences between the properties of I/O lines of different logic and microcontroller families. In most cases these will never be a problem at all, but can rear their heads as edge cases which the would-be experimenter needs to know something about.

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