Visualizing Magnetic Memory With Core 64

For the vast majority of us, computer memory is a somewhat abstract idea. Whether you’re declaring a variable in Python or setting a register in Verilog, the data goes — somewhere — and the rest really isn’t your problem. You may have deliberately chosen the exact address to write to, but its not like you can glance at a stick of RAM and see the data. And you almost certainly can’t rewrite it by hand. (If you can do either of those things, let us know.)

These limitations must have bothered [Andy Geppert], because he set out to bring computer memory into the tangible (or at least, visible) world with his interactive memory badge Core 64. [Andy] has gone through a few different iterations, but essentially Core 64 is an 8×8 grid of woven core memory, which stores each bit via magnetic polarization, with a field of LEDs behind it that allow you to visualize what’s stored. The real beauty of this setup is that it it can be used to display 64 pixel graphics. Better yet — a bit can be rewritten by introducing a magnetic field at the wire junction. In other words, throw a magnet on a stick into the mix and you have yourself a tiny drawing tablet!

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen cool experiments with core memory, and not even the first time we’ve seen [Andy] use it to make something awesome, but it really illuminates how the technology works. Being able to not only see memory being written but to manually write to it makes it all so much realer, somehow.

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Repairing $55,000 Of Vintage Core Memory

If you find yourself in the vicinity of Mountain View, California you really should stop by the Computer History Museum. Even if you aren’t into the retrocomputer scene, there’s so much cool hardware ranging from a replica of the Babbage engine to nearly modern PCs. There’s even a room dedicated to classic video games. There are two fully working old computers at the museum that have their own special rooms: a PDP-1 (complete with vector scope to run Space War) and an IBM 1401.

The IBM 1401 looks like big iron, but in its day it was a low-end machine (costing an innovative business about $2500 a month). The base unit had 4000 words of magnetic core memory, but if you had a hankering for more memory, you could add the 350 pound dishwasher-sized IBM 1406 (for only $1575 a month or you could buy for $55100). How much memory did you get for $18900 a year? An extra 12000 words!

The problem is, the museum’s 1406 had developed a problem. Some addresses ending in 2, 4 or 6 failed and they were all in the same 4K block. [Ken Shirriff] was asked to go in and try to find the problem. We don’t want to give away the story, but [Ken] wrote up his experience (with lots of pictures).

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Core Memory For The Hard Core

[Brek] needed to store 64 bits of data from his GPS to serve as a last-known-position function. This memory must be non-volatile, sticking around when the GPS and power are off. Solutions like using a backup battery or employing a $0.25 EEPROM chip were obviously too pedestrian. [Brek] wanted to store his 64 bits in style and that means hand-wired core memory.

OK, we’re pretty sure that the solution came first, and then [Brek] found a fitting problem that could be solved, but you gotta give him props for a project well executed and well documented.

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Making A Core Rope Read-only Memory

[Kos] tipped us about an article he made presenting his experiences in designing and implementing a core rope memory. This magnetic read-only memory (ROM), contrary to ordinary coincident-current magnetic core memories (used for RAM), uses the ferrite cores as transformers. If you look at the picture above, you’ll count 7 of them. This sets the memory word size (7bits).  A new word is added to the memory by passing (or not) a wire through the ferrite holes. If you then pass an alternating current through this wire, a current will be induced (or not) in the other wire turned 30 times around the ferrite (alias transformer secondary).

In [Kos]’s setup, an input pulse of 5V generates output pulses of 15V. For demonstration purposes, he “wrote” a simple program that lights up digits in a seven segment display. Therefore, different numbers will light up depending on which wire he uses to pass the AC current.

These days core memory hacks are few and far between. But looking at this one, and the one we saw in August, makes want more. If you know of any others don’t hesitate to send us a tip.