Gigatron Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, June 24 at noon Pacific for the Gigatron Hack Chat with Walter Belgers!

There was a time when if you wanted a computer, you had to build it. And not by ordering parts from Amazon and plugging everything together in a case — you had to buy chips, solder or wire-wrap everything, and tinker endlessly. The process was slow, painful, and expensive, but in the end, you had a completely unique machine that you knew inside out because you put every bit of it together.

In some ways, it’s good that those days are gone. Being able to throw a cheap, standardized commodity PC at a problem is incredibly powerful, but that machine will have all the charm of a rubber doorstop and no soul at all. Luckily for those looking to get back a little of the early days of the computer revolution or those that missed them entirely, there are alternatives like the Gigatron. Billed as a “minimalistic retro computer,” the Gigatron is a kit that takes the builder back even further in time than the early computer revolution since it lacks a microprocessor. All the logic of the 8-bit computer is built up from discrete 7400-series TTL chips.

The Gigatron is the brainchild of Marcel van Kervinck and Walter Belgers. Tragically, Marcel recently passed away, but Walter is carrying the Gigatron torch forward and leading a thriving community of TTL-computer aficionados as they extend and enhance what their little home-built machines can do. Walter will stop by the Hack Chat to talk all things Gigatron, and answer your questions about how this improbably popular machine came to be.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, June 24 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.
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Hackaday Links: May 31, 2020

We begin with sad news indeed as we mark the passing of Marcel van Kervinck on Monday. The name might not ring a bell, but his project, the Gigatron TTL computer, certainly will. We did a deep dive on the microprocessor-less computer a while back, and Marcel was a regular at conferences and on the Gigatron forums, supporting users and extending what the computer can do. He was pretty candid about his health issues, and I’ll add that when I approached him a few weeks ago out of the blue about perhaps doing a Hack Chat about Gigatron, he was brutally honest about how little time he had left and that he wouldn’t make it that long. I was blown away by the grace and courage he displayed. His co-conspirator Walter Belger will carry on the Gigatron mission, including joining us for a Hack Chat on June 24. In the meantime, this might be a great time to pick up a Gigatron kit before they’re all sold out and get busy soldering all those delicious through-hole TTL chips.

May of 2020 is the month that never seems to end, and as the world’s focus seems to shift away from the immediate public health aspects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to the long-term economic impact of the response to it, we happened across a very interesting article on just that topic. Mike Robbins from the Circuit Lab has modeled the economic impact of the pandemic using analog circuit simulations. He models people as charges and the flow of people between diseases states as currents; the model has capacitors to store the charge and allow him to measure voltages and filters that model the time delays needed for public policy changes to be adopted. It’s a fascinating mashup of engineering and policy. You can play with the model online, tweak parameters, and see what you come up with.

One of the things that the above model makes clear is that waiting to fully reopen the economy until a vaccine is ready is a long and dangerous game. But there has at least been some progress on that front, as Massachusetts biotech firm Moderna announced success in Phase 1 clinical trials of its novel mRNA vaccine against SARS-CoV-2. It’s important to temper expectations here; Phase 1 trials are only the beginning of human testing, aimed at determining the highest treatment dose that won’t cause serious side effects. Phase 2 and Phase 3 trials are much more involved, so there’s a long way to go before the vaccine, mRNA-1273, is ready for use. If you need to brush up on how these new vaccines work, check out our handy guide to mRNA vaccines.

In happier news, the “moar memory” version of the Raspberry Pi 4 is now on sale. Eben Upton announced that the 8GB version of the Pi 4 is now available for $75. The upgrade was apparently delayed by the lack of an 8GB LPDDR SDRAM chip in a package that would work in the Pi manufacturing process. They’ve also released a beta of a 64-bit version of the Raspberry Pi OS, if you’re interested in a bleeding-edge flex.

And finally, for those who missed the first wave of the computer revolution and never had a blinkenlight machine, you can at least partially scratch that itch with this Internet-connected Altair 8800. Jesse Downing has written a queueing system that allows users to connect to the machine via ssh and use Microsoft BASIC 5.0 on CP/M. Need to see those glorious front panels lights do their thing? Jesse has kindly set up a live stream for that, with an overlay of the current console output. It’s a great way to relive your misspent youth, or to get a taste of what computing was like when soldering skills were a barrier to entry.

Hackaday Links: December 22, 2019

It’s hard to believe it, but the Raspberry Pi has been on the market for only seven years now. The single-board computer has become so entrenched in the hobby electronics scene that it’s hard to imagine life without it, or what we did before it came along. And with the recent announcement that the 30 millionth Raspberry Pi was recently manufactured, now we have some clarity on the scale of its success. Just roll that number around in your head for a bit – that’s one Pi for every nine or so people in the USA. Some of the other facts and figures in the linked article boggle the mind too, like Eben Upton figured they’d only ever sell about 10,000 units, or that the factory in Wales where most Pis are made can assemble 15,000 units a day.

Speaking of manufacturing, have you ever considered what goes into getting a small-scale manufactured product ready for shipping? The good folks over at Gigatron know all about the joys of kitting, and have put together an interesting un-unboxing video for their flagship TTL-only retro computer. It’s a nice riff on the unboxing videos that are somehow popular on YouTube these days, and shows just how much effort they put into getting a Gigatron out the door. All told, it takes about an hour to ship each unit, and the care put into the process is evident. We especially like the part where all the chips are placed into antistatic foam in the same orientation they’ll be on the completed board. Nice touch.

Last time we checked in on the Lulzbot saga, the open source 3D printer manufacturer had been saved from complete liquidation by a company named FAME 3D. Now we’re getting the first solid details about where things go from here. Not only will thirteen of the remaining Lulzbot employees be staying on, but FAME 3D plans to hire 50 new employees to get operations back up as quickly as possible. The catch? The “F” in FAME 3D stands for Fargo, North Dakota, where Fargo Additive Manufacturing Equipment 3D is based. So Lulzbot will be moving north from Loveland, Colorado in the coming months.

For the last few years, adventure travelers making the pilgrimage to Shenzhen to scour the electronics markets have stuffed a copy of Andrew “Bunnie” Huang’s The Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen into their soon-to-be-overflowing backpacks. The book is a goldmine of insider information, stuffed with maps and translation tables critical for navigating a different culture with no local language skills. Bunnie’s book has only been available in dead-tree format and now that all but the last few copies have been sold, he decided to make a web version available for free. We’d have to think a tablet or phone would be a bit harder to use in the heat of negotiation than the nice spiral-bound design of the print copy, but the fact that the insider information will now be widely available probably makes this a net positive.

And finally, if you’ve ever nearly been run over by an EV or hybrid silently backing out of a parking space, you’ll no doubt appreciate attempts to legislate some sort of audible presence to these vehicles. But what exactly should an electric vehicle be made to sound like? Volkswagen has begun to address that question, and while you can certainly read through the fluff in their press release, all you really need to do is listen to the sample. We’ve got to say that they pretty much nailed what a car of the future should sound like. Although they might have missed a real opportunity here.

Emulating A 6502 In ROM

The Gigatron TTL microcomputer is an exercise in alternative history. What if, by some bizarre anomaly of invention and technology, the 1970s was not the age of the microprocessor? What if we could have had fast, high density ROM and RAM in the late ’70s, but the ability to put a microprocessor in silicon was beyond our comprehension? Obviously we would figure out a way to compute with this, and the Gigatron is the answer. It’s a computer from that era that’s designed with a CPU that’s entirely made of microcode.

While the Gigatron is a popular product in the world of weird electronics kits, the creator, [Marcel van Kervinck], is going beyond what anyone thought possible. Now the Gigatron is emulating a 6502 processor, the same CPU found in the Apple II and almost every other retrocomputer that isn’t running a Z80.

There’s a thread over on the Gigatron forums for this. Although it’s still very early in development, the Gigatron can now run 6502 machine code,  and in doing so the Gigatron is now the only dual-core computer without a CPU. All of the addressing modes have been implemented, along with half of the instructions and most of the status flags. All of this interacts with the Gigatron’s existing video subsystem, and all code can switch in between the Gigatron’s virtual CPU and 6502 code with just a few instructions.

This opens the door to a wide variety of software that’s already written. MicroChess is possible, as is MS Basic. This is great; the biggest downside of the Gigatron is that there was no existing code for the machine when it was first designed. That changed when the Gigatron got a C compiler, but now somehow we’ve got a logic chip implementation of a 6502 in far fewer chips than are found in an Apple II. It’s not fast ( about 1/8th the speed of a 1 MHz 6502), but in the video below you can see a munching squares demo.

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The No-CPU Computer Gets A C Compiler

C is the most perfect language and it will run on anything. It will even run on a computer without a CPU.

The computer in question here is the Gigatron, a fully-functional ‘home computer’ the likes of which you would find in the late 70s and early 80s, complete with a VGA output. What makes the Gigatron exceptional is the fact that there is no microprocessor; everything is just a RAM, a ROM, and a bunch of logic chips. There is no ALU chip. Or rather, there is; it’s just that an entire RISC CPU is implemented in basic logic chips and a whole lot of microcode on the ROM. It’s weird, yes, but it is cool. We’ve taken a look at the Gigatron before, and with this computer you get a glimpse of how clever engineers could have been if there were massive memories available in the late 70s.

While the Gigatron can be programmed in BASIC, the limiting factor of this computer is the fact that it remains exceptionally difficult to program. This is what the 8-Bit Guy says, and even though you can write some simple programs, it’s nothing compared to the likes of an Apple II or C64. If only there were a proper IDE, indeed if only there were a C compiler. That’s where [pgavlin] comes in. He has the LCC compiler working on the Gigatron. This is technically a C compiler for a computer without a CPU, or a computer that is entirely CPU. Either way you look at it, this is impressive.

As far as examples and demos go, [pgavlin] has a demo of Conway’s Game of Life working, and a program that will put dots on the screen. It’s not much, and it’s very slow, but check out the video below.

This isn’t a complete implementation of C, as multiplication, division, mod, and arbitrary shifts left or right haven’t been written yet. Floating point support will probably never be completed, and there’s no shame in that. The hardware is limited due to the fact of the fragmented memory map, but this can be improved by upgrading the Gigatron to a 64k memory model.

 

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How The Gigatron TTL Microcomputer Works

About a year ago when Hackaday and Tindie were at Maker Faire UK in Newcastle, we were shown an interesting retrocomputer by a member of York Hackspace. The Gigatron is a fully functional home computer of the type you might have owned in the early 1980s, but its special trick is that it does not contain a microprocessor. Instead of a 6502, Z80, or other integrated CPU it only has simple TTL chips, it doesn’t even contain the 74181 ALU-in-a-chip. You might thus expect it to have a PCB the size of a football pitch studded with countless chips, but it only occupies a modest footprint with 36 TTL chips, a RAM, and a ROM. Its RISC architecture provides the explanation, and its originator [Marcel van Kervinck] was recently good enough to point us to a video explaining its operation.

It was recorded at last year’s Hacker Hotel hacker camp in the Netherlands, and is delivered by the other half of the Gigatron team [Walter Belgers]. In it he provides a fascinating rundown of how a RISC computer works, and whether or not you have any interest in the Gigatron it is still worth a watch just for that. We hear about the design philosophy and the choice of a Harvard architecture, explained the difference between CISC and RISC, and we then settle down for a piece-by-piece disassembly of how the machine works. The format of an instruction is explained, then the detail of their 10-chip ALU.

The display differs from a typical home computer of the 1980s in that it has a full-color VGA output rather than the more usual NTSC or PAL. The hardware is simple enough as a set of 2-bit resistor DACs, but the tricks to leave enough processing time to run programs while also running the display are straight from the era. The sync interval is used to drive another DAC for audio, for example.

The result is one of those what-might-have-been moments, a glimpse into a world in which RISC architectures arrived at the consumer level years earlier than [Sophie Wilson]’s first ARM design for an Acorn Archimedes. There’s no reason that a machine like this one could not have been built in the late 1970s, but as we know the industry took an entirely different turn. It remains then the machine we wish we’d had in the early 1980s, but of course that doesn’t stop any of us having one now. You can buy a Gigatron of your very own, and once you’ve soldered all those through-hole chips you can run the example games or get to grips with some of the barest bare-metal RISC programming we’ve seen. We have to admit, we’re tempted!

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