[Ken Shirriff] Becomes a Core Memory Repairman (Again)

Lately, [Ken Shirriff] has been on some of the most incredible hardware adventures. In his most recent undertaking we find [Ken] elbow-deep in the core memory of a 50-year-old machine, the IBM 1401. The computer wasn’t shut down before mains power was cut, and it has refused to boot ever since. The culprit is in the core memory support circuitry, and thanks to [Ken’s] wonderful storytelling we can travel along with him to repair an IBM 1401.

From a hardware standpoint core memory makes us giddy. It’s a grid of wires with ferrite toroids at every intersection. Bits can be set or cleared based on how electricity is applied to the intersecting wires. [Al Williams] walked through some of the core memory history last year and we enjoyed hearing [Pamela Liou] recount the story of how textile workers consulted on the fabrication of core memory for the Apollo missions during her OHWS Talk in October. But giddiness aside, core memory has pretty much gone the way of the dodo having been displaced by technologies that take up exponentially less space.

Bad inductor (green housing has been dissolved away)

We chuckle at [Ken’s] mention of the core memory capacity for the IBM 1401. It has 4000 characters of memory built-in (with another 12,000 in an expansion box) and he goes on to detail that these are 6-bit characters on a machine that operates in decimal and not binary (hence 4k instead of the base-2 friendly 4096).

You may remember his work a few years back to repair core memory on the same model. The Museum has two 1401’s, which turned out to be a huge help in trouble-shooting this. After tracing out the control lines, the repair team began swapping cards between the working and non-working machines. They were able to bring it back online — establishing one of the green inductors was bad — only to be struck with a second fault in the power supply.

Get this, [Ken] comments that “the whole computer is pre-silicon”. When working through the PSU, some suspect transistors were replaced with germanium power transistors. Those may have been a red-herring, as a penciled-in fuse on the original schematics turned out to be the linchpin of the PSU repair. Buried deep in the assembly, replacing the designed-to-fail part let the ancient beast awake once more.

Machines of this quality were heavily documented, and the schematics make this type of trouble-shooting a lot more manageable. But it’s still as much an art as it is skill. Make sure to give [Ken’s] article a read, and look around at the other repair jobs he’s documented — keeping these machines in service is becoming wizard-level work and we love being able to follow along.

Hands on with PocketBeagle

[Ken Shirriff] is no stranger to the pages of Hackaday. His blog posts are always interesting, and the recent one talking about the PocketBeagle is no exception. If you are old enough to remember the days when a Unix workstation set you back tens of thousands of dollars, you won’t be able to help yourself marveling at a Linux computer with 45 I/O pins, 8 analog inputs, 512M of RAM, and a 1 GHz clock, that fits in your pocket and costs $25. What’s more the board’s CPU has two 200 MHz auxiliary CPUs onboard to handle I/O without having to worry about Linux overhead.

These last parts are significant, and although the Beagles have had this feature for years ([Ken] talked about it earlier), the access and communication methods for using these slave processors has become easier. [Ken] shows a small snippet of C code that outputs a 40 MHz square wave no matter what the Linux OS is doing. In this way you can use Linux for the parts of your application that are not that critical, and use the slave processors to handle real time processing.

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Xerox Alto CRTs Needed a Tiny Lightbulb to Function

In the real world, components don’t work like we imagine they do. Wires have resistance, resistors have inductance, and capacitors have resistance. However, some designers like to take advantage of those imperfections, something our old friend [Ken Shirriff] noted when he was restoring the CRT of a Xerox Alto.

[Ken] tried to connect a Xerox monitor to the Alto and — since it was almost as old as the Alto — he wasn’t surprised that it didn’t work. What did surprise him, though, is that when he turned the monitor off, a perfect picture appeared for just a split second as the unit powered off. What could that mean?

Keep in mind this is a CRT device. So a perfect picture means you have vertical and horizontal sweep all at the right frequency. It also means you have high voltage and drive on the electron guns. If you are too young to remember all that, [Ken] covers the details in his post.

He found that the CRT grid voltage wasn’t present during operation. The voltage derived from the high voltage supply but, mysteriously, the high voltage was fine. There was a small lightbulb in the grid voltage circuit. A 28V device about like a flashlight bulb. It measured open and that turned out to be due to a broken lead. Repairing the broken lead to the bulb put the monitor back in operation.

On paper, a light bulb lights up when you put current through it. In real life, it is a bit more complicated. An incandescent filament starts off as almost a dead short and draws a lot of current for a very brief time. As the current flows, the filament gets hot and the resistance goes up. That reduces the current draw. This effect — known as inrush current — is the scourge of designers trying to turn on light bulbs with transistors or other electronic switches.

However, the unknown Xerox power supply designer used that effect as a current limiter. The short 600V pulses would hardly notice the light bulb but if too much current or time elapsed, the resistance of the bulb would rise preventing too much current from flowing for too long. With the bulb open, the negative brightness grid provided an impassible barrier to the electrons. Apparently, the brightness grid lost power a bit earlier than the rest of the circuit and with it out of the way — or perhaps, partially out of the way — the picture was fine until the rest of the circuit also lost power.

We looked at [Ken’s] efforts on this machine earlier this year. Light bulbs, by the way, aren’t the only thing that changes resistance in response to some stimulus. You might enjoy the 1972 commercial from Xerox touting the Alto’s ability to do advanced tasks like e-mail and printing.

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Reverse Engineering Space Invaders Sound Chip

Around here, a new blog post from [Ken Shirriff] is almost as exciting as a new Star Trek movie. This time, [Ken] tears apart a 76477 sound effects chip. This chip was state-of-the-art in 1978 and used in Space Invaders, along with plenty of other pinball machines and games.

[Ken] started out with a die photo from [Sean Riddle] and mapped its functions. Unlike a modern sound chip, this one created sounds based on networks of attached resistors and capacitors. Even if you aren’t interested in the chip, per se, [Ken] explains how the die implements active and passive devices, along with some key analog design principles like current mirrors (although we are pretty sure he got his right and his left mixed up, or maybe it was a very subtle mirror joke).

Before electronics magazines were full of computer projects, they were full of music synthesis projects and the 76477 is like a crude synthesizer on a chip. It has voltage controlled oscillators (VCOs),  and generates envelopes with specific attack and decay times to create the sounds of interest.

This reminded us a little of the sounds from the more advanced MOS6581. [Ken] has looked inside a lot of ICs, including at the 2016 Hackaday SuperConference.

Explaining The Operation Of The 74181 ALU

You will all no doubt be familiar with the 74 series logic integrated circuits, they provide the glue logic for countless projects. If you look back through old listings of the series you’ll find alongside the familiar simple gates a host of now obsolete chips that reveal their roots in the pre-microprocessor computer industry of the late 1960s, implementing entire functions that would now be integrated.

One of the more famous of these devices is the 74181, a cascadable 4-bit arithmetic logic unit, or ALU. An ALU is the heart of a microprocessor, performing its operations. The 74181 appeared in many late-60s and early-70s minicomputers, will be familiar to generations of EE and CS students as the device they were taught about ALUs on, and can now be found in some home-built retrocomputers.

[Ken Shirriff], doyen of the integrated circuit teardown, has published a piece taking a look at the 74181, in particular at its logic functions and the reason for some of them that are rather surprising. As well as the normal logic functions, for example the chip can do “(A + B) PLUS AB“. Why on earth you might think would an ALU need to do that?

The answer lies in the way it performs carrying while adding, a significant speed-up can be achieved over ripple carrying along a chain of adders if it can be ascertained whether a bit addition might generate a carry bit. He explains the function required to perform this operation, and suddenly the unusual extra function makes sense. Addition is transformed from a serial process to a parallel one, with a consequent speed increase.

It’s one of those moments in which you have to salute those logic designers from an era when on-chip real-estate was costly and every ounce of speed had to be teased from their designs. Give it a read, and have a go at the interactive 74181 simulator further down [Ken]’s page. We learned something from the article, and so may you.

We brought you the first part of [Ken]’s 74181 investigations earlier in the year. If you would like to see a 74181 in action, take a look at this 4-bit 74 logic single board computer.

Yes, You Can Reverse Engineer this 74181

[Ken Shirriff] is the gift that keeps on giving this new year. His latest is a reverse engineering of the 74181 Arithmetic Logic Unit (ALU). The great news is that the die image and complexity are both optimized for you to succeed at doing your own reverse engineering.

74181-openedWe have most recently seen [Ken] at work explaining his decapping and reverse engineering process at the Hackaday SuperCon followed soon after by his work on the 8008. That chip is crazy with complexity and a die-ogling noob (like several of us on the Hackaday crew) stands no chance of doing more than simply following along with what he explains. This time around, the 74181 is just right for the curious but not obsessed. Don’t believe me? The 8008 had around 3,500 transistors while the friendly 74181 hosts just 170. We like those odds!

A quick crash course in visually recognizing transistors will have you off to the races. [Ken] also provides reference for more complex devices. But where he really saves the day is in his schematic analysis. See, the traditional ‘textbook’ logic designs have been made faster in this chip and going through his explanation will get you back on track to follow the method behind the die’s madness.

[Ken] took his own photograph of the die. You can see the donor chip above which had its ceramic enclosure shattered with a brisk tap from a sharp chisel.

8008 Exposed

[Ken Shirriff] is no stranger to Hackaday. His latest blog post is just the kind of thing we expect from him: a tear down of the venerable 8008 CPU. We suspect [Ken’s] earlier post on early CPUs pointed out the lack of a good 8008 die photo. Of course, he wasn’t satisfied to just snap the picture. He also does an analysis of the different constructs on the die.

Ever wonder why the 8008 ALU is laid out in a triangle shape? In all fairness, you probably haven’t, but you might after you look at the photomicrograph of the die. [Ken] explains why.

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