Digitizing Domesday Disks

After the Norman invasion of England, William the Conqueror ordered a great reckoning of all the lands and assets owned. Tax assessors went out into the country, counted sheep and chickens, and compiled everything into one great tome. This was the Domesday Book, an accounting of everything owned in England nearly 1000 years ago. It is a vital source for historians and economists, and one of the most important texts of the Middle Ages.

In the early 1980s, the BBC set upon a new Domesday Project. Over one million people took part in compiling writings on history, geography, and social issues. Maps were cataloged, and census data recorded. All of this was printed on a LaserDisk, meant to be played on an Acorn BBC Master. Now, 30 years on, hardly anyone can read the BBC Domesday Project. Let that be a lesson, kids: follow [Jason Scott] on Twitter.

Even though Acorn computers and SCSI LaserDisks and coprocessors are dying, that doesn’t mean the modern Domesday Disk is lost to the sands of time. This project aims to duplicate the Domesday Disk, and in the process provide a means to archive all LaserDisks. It’s a capture card for LaserDisks, and it also means we can finally make a good rip of the un-specalized Star Wars.

The Domesday Duplicator is a shield that plugs into an Altera DE-0 Nano FPGA board and a Cypress FX3 USB board. The Duplicator itself serves as an analog capture card complete with an RF amplifier and a 40 MSPS ADC — fast enough for any analog video signal. With the 50 Ohm input, it will work with most LaserDisk players, ultimately preserving this incredible historical archive from the early 80s.

SCSI Emulation Of A Rare Peripheral For The Acorn BBC Micro

Mass storage presents a problem for those involved in the preservation of older computer hardware. While today’s storage devices are cheap and huge by the standards of decades ago their modern interfaces are beyond the ability of most older computers. And what period mass storage hardware remains is likely to be both unreliable after several decades of neglect, and rather expensive if it works due to its rarity.

The Domesday Project 86 team face this particular problem to a greater extent than almost any others in the field, because their storage device is a particularly rare Philips Laser Disc drive. Their solution is the BeebSCSI, a small board with a CPLD and an AVR microcontroller providing host adaptor and SCSI-1 emulation respectively for a modern micro-SD card.

An original BBC Domesday set-up. Regregex [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
An original BBC Domesday set-up. Regregex [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
1986 saw the 900th anniversary of the Domesday Book, a survey and inventory of his new kingdom commissioned in 1086 by the Norman king of England, William the Conqueror. One of the ways the event was marked in 1986 was the BBC Domesday Project, a collaboration between the BBC, several technology companies including Acorn and Philips, and a huge number of volunteers from the general public and the British school system. Pictures, video, and text were gathered relating to locations all over the country, and the whole was compiled with a not-quite-hypertext interface onto a set of Laser Disc ROMs. The system required the upgraded Master version of the 6502-based BBC Micro, a SCSI interface, and a special Laser Disc player model manufactured by Philips for this project alone. The hardware was expensive, rare, and unreliable, so few of its contributors would have seen it in action and it faded from view to become a cause celebre among digital archivists.

There have been several resurrections of the project over the years, including one from the BBC themselves which you can browse online. What makes this project different from the others is that it strives to present the Domesday experience as it was originally intended to be viewed, on as far as possible the original hardware and with the original BBC Micro interface. Many original parts such as BBC Master systems are relatively easy to source in 2016, but the special Laser Disc player is definitely not. This board replaces that impossible link in the chain, and should allow them to present a glimpse of 1986 in more than just the on-screen information.

If you would like to see an original BBC Domesday Project system, you can find one in action at the National Museum of Computing, at Bletchley Park. Meanwhile we’ve already featured another peripheral from the same stable as this one, the SmallyMouse USB-to-quadrature mouse emulator.