Not to start a debate in the comments or anything, but what would you say was the first microcomputer, or personal computer? We suppose the answer depends on your definition. Some would argue that the PC was born at Xerox PARC with a curious portrait-mode display and a three-button mouse, while others would say it all began in a garage in either Los Altos, California or Albuquerque, New Mexico.
If you take the term ‘computer’ to mean that which can crunch big numbers fairly quickly, then the Canadian-made MCM/70 is arguably the first personal computer in that it is portable, has an alphanumeric keyboard, a display, and supports cassette storage, which could be used to extend the 8K of memory. It was an all-in-one computing solution, and it could have an optional telephone modem built in. This was a forward-thinking machine for 1974.
Over on Hackaday.io, [Zoltan Pekic] has been busy building a stack of tools for assisting with verifying and debugging retro computing applications. He presents his take on using Intel hex files for customised in-circuit testing, which is based upon simple microcoded sequencers, which are generated automatically from a high level description.
The idea is that it is very useful to be able to use an FPGA development board to emulate the memory bus component of the CPU, allowing direct memory access for design validation purposes. This approach will also allow the production of a test rig to perform board level verification. The microcode compiler (MCC) generates all the VHDL, and support files needed to target a Xilinx FPGA based dev board, but is generic enough to enable targeting other platforms with a little adaptation.
Another interesting use case enables in-circuit tracing of buggy memory accesses, with the microcode sequencer decoding the accesses and dumping the relevant information out to either a serial port, or even direct to an embedded VGA controller, hardware allowing.
This automated approach to generating customisable microcoded hardware is a very nice trick to have in your bag, and even if it only helps in certain circumstances, [Zoltan] notes that it at least serves as an interesting example of the architecture of computers from history, if not much else.
Source for the example 8085 project can be found on the project GitHub, and the toolchain source can found here also.
To say the Heathkit name is well known among Hackaday readers would be something of an understatement. Their legendary kits launched an untold number of electronics hobbies, and ultimately, plenty of careers. From relatively simple radio receivers to oscilloscopes and televisions, the company offered kits for every skill level from the post-war era all the way up to the 1990s.
So it’s hardly a surprise that in 1977, seeing the success of early home computers like the Altair 8800 and IMSAI 8080, Heathkit decided to join the fray with a computer kit of their own. But by that point the home computing market had started to shift from a hobbyist’s pursuit to something the whole family could enjoy. Compared to the Apple II and TRS-80, both of which also launched in 1977, Heathkit’s machine seemed like the product of a bygone era.
While it might not have gained the notoriety of the microcomputers it was designed to compete with, the Heathkit H8 is certainly not forgotten. Tucked away in a corner at the 2021 Vintage Computer Festival East was an impressive exhibit dedicated to the Society of Eight-Bit Heath Computerists (SEBHC) called Heathkit: Keeping the Legacy Alive. Presented by Glenn Roberts, this collection of original and modern hardware demonstrated the incredible lengths to which this group of passionate Heathkit owners have gone to not just preserve the memory of these often overlooked computers, but to continue to improve upon the kit’s unique design.
[Ken Shirriff] recently shared some pictures and a writeup from his visit to the Large Scale Systems Museum, a remarkable private collection of mainframes and other computers from the 1970s to the 1990s. Housed in a town outside Pittsburgh, it contains a huge variety of specimens including IBM mainframes and desk-sized minicomputers, enormous disk and tape storage systems, and multiple 90s-era Cray supercomputers. It doesn’t stop there, either. Everything through the minicomputer revolution leading to personal home computers is present, and there are even several Heathkit HERO robot kits from the 80s. (By the way, we once saw a HERO retrofitted with wireless and the ability to run Python.)
Something really special is that many of the vintage systems are in working order, providing insight into how these units performed and acted. The museum is a private collection and is open only by appointment but they encourage interested parties not to be shy. If a trip to the museum isn’t for you, [Ken] has some additional photos from his visit here for you to check out.
For anyone who’s seen a 1970’s era microcomputer like the Altair 8800 doing its thing, you’ll know the centerpiece of these behemoths is the array of LEDs and toggle switches used as input and output. Sure, computers today are exponentially more capable, but there’s something undeniably satisfying about developing software with pen, paper, and the patience to key it all in.
If you’d like to get a taste of old school visceral programming, but aren’t quite ready to invest in a 40 year old computer, then [GClown25] might have the answer for you. He’s developed a pocket sized “computer” he’s calling the BIT4 that can be programmed with just three tactile switches. In reality it’s an ATMega4809 running C code, but it does give you an idea of how the machines of yesteryear were programmed.
In the video after the break, [GClown25] demonstrates the BIT4 by entering in a simple binary counter program. With a hand-written copy of the program to use as a reference, he steps through the memory addresses and enters in the command and then the value he wishes to operate on. After a few seconds of frantic button pushing, he puts the BIT4 into run mode and you can see the output on the array of LEDs along the top edge of the PCB.
Among the rows of digital dinosaurs, one blinking front panel stood out. It certainly looked the part of a retro computer; with banks of blinking LEDs and multicolored paddle switches. But upon closer inspection, the laser cut wooden front panel betrays the fact that this machine is an impostor. It may have the appearance of a machine from the heady days where home computers looked like they could have doubled as a prop on the bridge of Kirk’s Enterprise, but it’s actually a product of much more modern provenance.
It’s called the Cactus, a love letter to the homebrew microcomputers of the 1970’s, designed and built by somebody at least 20 years too young to have experienced them the first time around. Alexander Pierson created the Cactus not because he had fond memories of putting together an Altair 8800 in 1975, but because he’s fascinated with the retro computer experience: the look of the front panel, the satisfying clunk of era-appropriate switches, and the idea that the computer’s inner workings aren’t an abstract black box but rather something you can interact with and study. Judging by all the attention the Cactus got at VCF East XIII, he’s not the only one.
Let’s take a look at everything Alexander poured into this retrocomputer build.
For anyone who has dealt with the programming language Forth, odds are good that you picked it up back in the 80s. Since the language is still in use for many applications, though, you might not have this sort of nostalgic feeling for the language that some might have. For that, though, you might want to try out [Richard]’s implementation which simulates the microcomputers of the 80s using this unique language.
The system has an FPGA-based CPU written in Verilog. It runs on a Nexys-3 board and features PS/2 Keyboard input, a VGA output with a VHDL VT100 terminal emulation module, access to the Flash and onboard SRAM, and a UART. With all of that put together it’s virtually a Forth-based time machine. It’s also extremely well documented even if you’re just curious how it works and aren’t planning on building your own.
The project also includes a CPU simulator written in C which can model the entire computer if you don’t have the hardware for building the actual computer. [Richard] also released everything that you’d need to roll out your own Forth computer on the GitHub page. There are other ways of heading way back to the 1980s, though, like using the quirky Parralax Propeller.