A TTL CPU, Minimising Its Chip Count

By now we should all be used to the astonishing variety of CPUs that have come our way created from discrete logic chips. We’ve seen everything from the familiar Von Neumann architectures to RISC and ever transport-triggered architecture done in 74 TTL derivatives, and fresh designs remain a popular project for many people with an interest in the inner workings of a computer.

[Warren Toomey]’s CSCvon8 is an interesting machine that implements an 8-bit computer with a 64-bit address space using only 17 chips, and without resorting to any tricks involving microcontrollers. It implements a fairly conventional Von Neumann architecture using TTL with a couple of tricks that use modern chips but could have been done in the same way in decades past. Instruction microcode is stored in an EEPROM, and the ALU is implemented in a very large EPROM that would probably once have been eye-wateringly expensive. This in particular removes many discrete TTL chips from the total count, in the absence of the classic 74181 single-chip part. To make it useful there is 32k each of RAM and EEPROM, and also a UART for serial access. The whole is brought together on a neat PCB, and there is a pile of demo code to get started with. Everything can be found in the project’s GitHub repository.

At the start of this article we mentioned a couple of unconventional TTL CPUs. The transport triggered one we featured in 2017, and the RISC one is the Gigatron which has appeared here more than once.

A Faithful Replica Of An Early Computer Trainer

Turn the clock back six decades or so and imagine you’re in the nascent computer business. You know your product has immense value, but only to a limited customer base with the means to afford such devices and the ability to understand them and put them to use. You know that the market will eventually saturate unless you can create a self-sustaining computer culture. But how does one accomplish such a thing in 1961?

Enter the Minivac 601. The brainchild of no less a computer luminary than Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, the Minivac 601 was ostensibly a toy in the vein of the “100-in-1” electronics kits that would appear later. It used electromechanical circuits to teach basic logic, and now [megardi] has created a replica of the original Minivac 601.

Both the original and the replica use relays as logic switches, which can be wired in various configurations through jumpers. [megardi]’s version is as faithful to the original as possible with modern parts, and gets an extra authenticity boost through the use of 3D-printed panels and a laser-cut wood frame to recreate the look of the original. Sadly, the unique motorized rotary switch, used for both input and output on the original, has yet to be fully implemented on the replica. But everything else is spot on, and the vintage look is great. Extra points to [megardi] for laboriously recreating the original programming terminals with solder lugs and brass eyelets.

We love seeing this retro replica, and appreciate the chance to reflect on the genius of its inventor. Our profile of Claude Shannon is a great place to start learning about his other contributions to computer science. We’ve also got a deeper dive into information theory for the curious.

Thanks to [Granz] for the tip.

A Full-Stack Web Browser

Interviewing to be a full-stack engineer is hard. It’s a lot harder than applying for a junior dev job where you’re asked to traverse a red-black tree on a whiteboard. For the full-stack job, they just give you a pile of 2N2222 transistors. (The first company wasn’t a great fit, and I eventually found a place that gave me some 2N2907s for the interview.) That said, there’s a certain challenge in seeing how far you can push some doped silicon. Case in point, [Alastair Hewitt]. He’s building a computer to browse the world wide web from the gate level up.

The goal of this project is to browse the web using only TTL logic. This presents problems that aren’t readily apparent at first glance. First up is being able to display text on a screen. The easiest way to do this now is to get a whole bunch of modern memories that are astonishingly fast for a 1970s vintage computer. This allows for VGA output, and yes, we’ve seen plenty of builds that output VGA using some big honkin’ memories. It turns out these RAM and ROM chips are a little better than the specs say they are, and this computer is overclocked from the very beginning.

A bigger problem is how to interface with a network. This is a problem for very old computers, but PPP still exists and if you have the software stack you can read something from a server over a serial connection. [Alistar] actually found the UART frequency was more important than the dot clock frequency of VGA, and the system clock must therefore be built around the serial port, not the display interface. This means the text mode interface is actually 96 columns instead of the usual 80 columns.

It’s very easy to say that you’re building a computer on a bread board. It’s another thing entirely to actually do it. This is actually a surprisingly well-though out sketch of a computer system that will, theoretically, be able to connect to the Internet. Of course, the reality of the situation is that this computer will be connecting over serial to a computer that’s connected to the Internet, but there’s no shame in that. You can check out the progress on the GitHub for this project.

Shedding A Bit Of Light On Some Logic

When it comes to logic technologies, we like to think we’ve seen them all here at Hackaday. But our community never ceases to surprise us with its variety and ingenuity, so it should be a surprise that [Dr Cockroach] has delivered one we’ve not seen before. Light logic doesn’t use the conventional active devices you’d expect such as transistors, tubes, or even relays. Instead, it uses LEDs and CdS cells to make rudimentary switches. So far there is a NAND, a NOR, and a set-reset latch that appears in the video below the break, and it is not inconceivable that much more complex devices could be crafted.

The CdS cell switch is not too far different in operation to a transistor, with the CdS cell forming half of a potential divider as a rough equivalent of a collector-emitter circuit, and the LED feeding its light to the cell and forming a rough equivalent of a base circuit. It would probably not form a very good analog of a transistor and it seems likely that is will not be the fastest of devices, but we applaud the ingenuity in coming up with it.

CdS cells are a component that seems almost to come from another era, redolent of childhood electronic kits from days of yore. It’s no surprise we don’t see them too often, though, they pop up in the occasional automatic sunglasses.

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Behind The Pin: Logic Level Outputs

There is one thing that unites almost every computer and logic circuit commonly used in the hardware hacking and experimentation arena. No matter what its age, speed, or internal configuration, electronics speak to the world through logic level I/O. A single conductor which is switched between voltage levels to denote a logic 1 or logic zero. This is an interface standard that has survived the decades from the earliest integrated circuit logic output of the 1960s to the latest microcontroller GPIO in 2018.

The effect of this tried and true arrangement is that we can take a 7400 series I/O port on an 8-bit microcomputer from the 1970s and know with absolute confidence that it will interface without too much drama to a modern single-board computer GPIO. When you think about it, this is rather amazing.

It’s tempting to think then that all logic level outputs are the same, right? And of course they are from a certain viewpoint. Sure, you may need to account for level shifting between for example 5V and 3.3V families but otherwise just plug, and go, right? Of course, the real answer isn’t quite that simple. There are subtle electrical differences between the properties of I/O lines of different logic and microcontroller families. In most cases these will never be a problem at all, but can rear their heads as edge cases which the would-be experimenter needs to know something about.

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Glimmies, As Logic

[Jacob Christ] writes in with a hack that’s going to be this summer’s fidget spinner. Why? The favourite toy of his youngster’s generation is a Glimmie. And while fidget spinners were useful for, well, spinning, the small animal-like Glimmie seems to have an unexpected property, they can function as logic gates.

They form an optical inverter, in their head is a phototransistor and in their belly an LED which goes on when the head is in the dark. He’s found through experimentation that they can be combined to form an AND gate, and thus a NAND gate with the addition of a further inverter.  Since all logic functions can be made from NAND gates, it should therefore be possible to go as far as to make any device based upon logic, even up to a fully functional computer. He estimates the cost of a single gate at $16.30. A computer would require in the region of 80,000 Glimmies to work, but maybe someone with deep enough pockets will be foolhardy enough to give it a try.

You can see the AND gate in action below complete with camera work from a youngster, and if unexpected logic gates are something that’s caught your attention you can take a look at the battery booster pack logic we brought you a while back.

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Cigar Box Synth Is A Fun Time

It’s fair to say that the groovebox market has exploded. Store shelves are overflowing with the umpteenth releases from KORG’s Volca line and the latest Pocket Operators. These devices often feature a wide array of tones in an enticingly compact and attractive package, but is it possible to build something similar at home? As [lonesoulsurfer] relates, it certainly is.

The Cigar Box Synth is, well… a synth, built in a cigar box. Based upon a 555 & 556 timer, and a 4017 decade counter, it provides a wealth of beepy goodness all crammed into a neat wooden package. We dig the cigar box form factor, as it’s a readily available wooden box often finished in an attractive way, and readily reworkable for all kinds of projects.

Sound is controlled with three master potentiometers, and there are four separate potentiometers to set the note for each of the four steps in the sequence. While its melodic abilities are limited to just four notes, it’s certainly something fun to play with and can act as a great jumping off point for further electronic experimentation in this area.

It takes us back to our guide on building DIY logic-based synthesizers – read on!