We’re pretty familiar with such names as Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Jack Tramiel, Nolan Bushnell, and the other movers and shakers of the 1970s home computer world. But there’s one person who towered among them for a few years before cashing out and leaving the computer business to pursue the life he’d always wanted. [Gareth Edwards] for Every has a fascinating profile of Ed Roberts, the man who arguably started the home computer boom but is now an obscure figure.
Even if you’ve never heard of Ed Roberts, you’ve likely heard of the product his company brought to market. The MITS Altair 8800 was the first computer to be sold as a home computer rather than for business or scientific use, and though its toggle switch interface now seems extremely quaint, its influence on every microcomputer that followed has been immense.
As followers of the retrocomputing scene, we know about the Altair, but perhaps more interesting is the story of MITS. Formed by a group of US Air Force veterans to produce rocket telemetry equipment, it pivoted to calculators, and as that market imploded in the early 1970s, the computer was a big gamble to save it from bankruptcy. It’s one that paid off, and as someone used to seeing technological cycles of boom and bust, Ed cashed out at the peak of the first wave. He followed his long-held ambition of becoming a doctor, and when, in 2010, he was near the end of his life, the hospital caring for him was shocked to find itself being visited by Bill Gates. It’s an article about a fascinating individual well worth reading.
The Altair, meanwhile, is a project that appears quite often here at Hackaday. Here’s a recreation of one as original as possible. The Mark 8 came out a little earlier but without complete kits or assembled units, so it didn’t get the traction — or the imitators — that the Altair did.
With a BASIC interpreter and free run throughout their hardware, home computers like the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 used to be a pervasive way to light that hacker fire. With the advent of cheap single board computers like the Raspberry Pi, devices purpose built to emulate these classic systems have become fairly commonplace. [uli] built a device in this vein called the BASIC Engine which is driven by a microcontroller and a handful of hardware peripherals. Like other examples it can be attached to a keyboard, programmed in a BASIC, play video and sound, etc. But digging into the BASIC Engine reveals that it’s similarity to other devices is only skin deep.
The current version of the BASIC Engine (“rev2”) lives in a Raspberry Pi 3 case for convenience. It has RCA connectors for NTSC or PAL video output and mono audio, plus a bank of headers to tap into GPIOs, connectors for a keyboard, and more. [uli] wanted to aim for extreme low cost so a relatively beefy board like a Raspberry Pi didn’t fit the bill, and we expect it was an enjoyable challenge. Instead its interpreter runs atop an ESP8266 but with the networking stack removed. [uli] was disheartened by how bloated even a “Hello world” program was and ripped it out, discovering that hidden beneath was a very powerful and disproportionately inexpensive general purpose microcontroller. The video is driven by a VS23S010, sold as a 1 Mbit parallel SRAM with a neat trick; it also includes a composite video controller!
The real treat here is [uli]’s history writeup of how the BASIC Engine came to be. We’d recommend brewing a cup of coffee and sitting down for a full read-through. The first version was inspired by the PlayPower project, which was repurposing clones of Nintendo’s Famicom (NES to Americans) game console to make low cost home computers, complete with keyboard and gamepad input. [uli] started out by building a custom cartridge for a particular Famicom clone that ran a BASIC interpreter but after showing it to disinterested adults the project was left fallow. Years later, [uli] was encouraged to pick up the project again, leading down a twisted rabbit hole to where we are today.
If you want to build a BASIC Engine for yourself, Gerbers and build instructions are available on the pages linked above.
Children of the 1980s who had an interest in technology were lucky indeed. As well as the first generations of home computers at their disposal they had the expectation to program them, something which the generation that followed had lost.
Traditional children’s publishers enthusiastically embraced the home computer boom, and probably for the only time in history there were books aimed at children covering subjects like machine code, or interfacing to microprocessors.
If you are British, the most memorable of these books came from Usborne Publishing. Their format of colourful cartoons and easy to digest layout have made them something of a cult object among the now-grown-up generation who first received them, and Usborne themselves have cleverly exploited their heritage to promote their current offerings by releasing some of them as PDFs. And now, to promote their latest title, “Coding For Beginners Using Python”, they’ve released five more (scroll down to see). Titles are “Practice Your BASIC”, “Better BASIC”, “Computer Controlled Robots”, “Experiments With Your Computer”, and “Keyboards & Computer Music”, which join the fifteen they’ve already released.
Obviously they are heavily based around the microcomputers of the 1980s, but of course for most Hackaday readers that will be their chief attraction. Either way they’re an interesting read, and should you happen to have a few old micros lying around then maybe you could have a go at some of the projects.
Black and white NTSC is simple – it can, and was, done with vacuum tubes for a long, long time. Color is just weird, though. It runs at 29.976 frames per second, uses different phases of the carrier for different colors, and generally takes a while to wrap your head around. [Sagar] is doing a series on the intricacies of NTSC, and the latest post deals with color and progressive scanning versus interlacing, or as it is better known, how classic game consoles and home computers generate video.
The test bed for [Sagar]’s video experimentations is a circuit containing an ATMega16, a 4-bit shift register, and a 14.31818 MHz clock. This clock is much faster than the 3.579545 MHz clock in an NTSC carrier frequency – exactly four times as fast – allowing the shift register to output four different phases of the carrier frequency a 0°, 90°. 180°, and 270°. Playing with some of the pins on the ATMega in the circuit results in a palette being generated on any old TV.
NTSC requires interlaced scanning, or sending an entire screen of even lines, then an entire screen of odd lines, at around 60 fields per second. The Nintendos and Segas of yesteryear didn’t bother with this, instead opting to send half the vertical resolution at double the frame rate. This is known as a progressive scan. [Sagar] found that this resulted in some image artifacts when displayed on a modern LCD, and moving back to an interlaced mode fixed the problem. All the code and files are up on the gits. If you’re feeling adventurous, this is exactly how projects like the Uzebox have created homebrew game consoles using little more than the ATMega found in [Sagar]’s build.