How The 8087 Coprocessor Got Its Bias

Most of us have been there. You build a device but realize you need two or more voltages. You could hook up multiple power supplies but that can be inconvenient and just not elegant. Alternatively, you can do something in the device itself to create the extra voltages starting with just one. When [Ken Shirriff] decapped an 8087 coprocessor to begin exploring it, he found it had that very problem. It needed: +5 V, a ground, and an additional -5 V.

His exploration starts with a smoking gun. After decapping the chip and counting out all the bond wires going to the various pads, he saw there was one too many. It wasn’t hard to see that the extra wire went to the chip’s substrate itself. This was for providing a negative bias to the substrate, something done in some high-performance chips to get increased speed, a more predictable transistor threshold voltage, and to reduce leakage current. Examining where the bond wire went to in the circuitry he found the two charge pump circuits shown in the banner image. Those worked in alternating fashion to supply a -5 V bias to the substrate, or rather around -3 V when you take into account voltage drops. Of course, he also explains the circuits and dives in deeper, including showing how the oscillations are provided to make the charge pumps work.

If this is anything like [Ken’s] previous explorations, it’ll be the first of a series of posts exploring the 8087. At least that’s what we hope given how he’d previously delighted us with a reverse engineering of the 76477 sound effects chip used in Space Invaders and then went deeper to talk about integrated injection logic (I2L) as used in parts of the chip.

Ken Shirriff Found Butterflies In His Op-Amp

In 1976, Texas Instruments came out with the TL084, a four JFET op-amp IC each with similar circuitry to Fairchild’s very popular single op-amp 741. But even though the 741 has been covered in detailed, when [Ken Shirriff] focused his microscope on a TL084, he found some very interesting things.

JFETs on the TL084 op-amp

To avoid using acid to get at the die, he instead found a ceramic packaged TL084 and pried off the cover. The first things he saw were four stabilizing capacitors, by far the largest structures on the die and visible to the naked eye.

When he peered into his microscope he next saw butterfly shapes which turned out to be pairs of input JFETs. The wide strips are the gates and the narrower strip surrounded by each gate is the source. The drain is the narrow strip surrounding each gate. Why arrange four JFETs like this? It’s possible to have temperature gradients in the IC, one side being hotter than the other. These gradients can affect the JFET’s characteristics, unbalancing the inputs. Look closely at the way the JFETs are connected and you’ll see that the top-left one is connected to the bottom-right one, and similarly for the other two. This diagonal cross-connecting cancels out any negative effects.

[Ken’s] analysis in his article doesn’t stop there though. Not only does he talk more about these JFETs but he goes over the rest of the die too. It’s well worth the read, as is his write-up about the 741 which we’ve also covered.

Space Invaders Sound Chip Went Old School With I2L

It must be everyone’s birthday today because [Ken Shirriff] has come out with a gift for us. He’s done another pass at reverse engineering the 76477 Space Invaders sound chip from the 1970s and found it’s full of integrated injection logic (I2L), making it a double treat: we get to explore the more of this chip which made sounds for so many of our favorite games, and we explore a type of logic which was to be the successor to TTL until CMOS came along.

I<sup>2</sup>L gate
I2L gate

This article has a similar shape to his last one, first introducing I2L, followed by showing us what it looks like on the die, and then covering the different functional elements which make heavy use of it. The first of these is the noise generator made up of a section of shift registers and a ring oscillator. That’s followed by a noise filter which doesn’t use I2L but does use current mirrors. And lastly, he talks about the mixer which mixes output from the noise generator and elements covered in his previous article, the voltage-controlled oscillator, and the super-low frequency oscillator. Oddly enough, and as he points out, it isn’t an analog mixer. Instead, it just ANDs together the various inputs.

[Ken’s] no stranger to putting dies under the microscope. Check out our coverage of his talk at the 2016 Hackaday SuperConference where he shows us the guts of such favorites as the Z80 and the 555 timer IC.

[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.

Continue reading “Hands on with PocketBeagle”

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.

Continue reading “Xerox Alto CRTs Needed a Tiny Lightbulb to Function”

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.