[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.
If you entered the world of professional computing sometime in the 1960s or 1970s there is a high probability that you would have found yourself working on a minicomputer. These were a class of computer smaller than the colossal mainframes of the day, with a price tag that put them within the range of medium-sized companies and institutions rather than large corporations or government-funded entities. Physically they were not small machines, but compared to the mainframes they did not require a special building to house them, or a high-power electrical supply.
One of the most prominent among the suppliers of minicomputers was Digital Equipment Corporation, otherwise known as DEC. Their PDP line of machines dominated the market, and can be found in the ancestry of many of the things we take for granted today. The first UNIX development in 1969 for instance was performed on a DEC PDP-7.
DEC’s flagship product line of the 1970s was the 16-bit PDP-11 series, launched in 1970 and continuing in production until sometime in the late 1990s. Huge numbers of these machines were sold, and it is likely that nearly all adults reading this have at some time or other encountered one at work even if we are unaware that the supermarket till receipt, invoice, or doctor’s appointment slip in our hand was processed on it.
During that over-20-year lifespan of course DEC did not retain the 74 logic based architecture of the earliest model. Successive PDP-11 generations featured ever greater integration of their processor, culminating by the 1980s in the J-11, a CMOS microprocessor implementation of a PDP-11/70. This took the form of two integrated circuits mounted on a large 60-pin DIP ceramic wafer. It was one of these devices that came the way of [bhilpert], and instead of retaining it as a curio he decided to see if he could make it work.
The PDP-11 processors had a useful feature: a debugging console built into their hardware. This means that it should be a relatively simple task to bring up a PDP-11 processor like the J-11 without providing the rest of the PDP-11 to support it, and it was this task that he set about performing. Providing a 6402 UART at the address expected of the console with a bit of 74 glue logic, a bit more 74 for an address latch, and a couple of 6264 8K by 8 RAM chips gave him a very simple but functional PDP-11 on a breadboard. He found it would run with a clock speed as high as 11MHz, but baulked at a 14MHz crystal. He suggests that the breadboard layout may be responsible for this. Hand-keying a couple of test programs, he was able to demonstrate it working.
The PDP-10 was one of the first computers [Jörg] had gotten his hands on, and there are very, very few people that can deny the beauty of a panel full of buttons, LEDs, dials, and analog meters. When one of the front panels for a PDP-10 showed up on eBay, [Jörg] couldn’t resist; a purchase that would lead him towards repairing this classic console and making it functional again with a BeagleBone.
The console [Jörg] picked up is old enough to have voted for more than one Bush administration, and over the years a lot of grime has covered the beautiful acrylic panels. After washing the panel in a bathtub, [Jörg] found the dried panel actually looked worse, like an old, damaged oil painting. This was fixed by carefully scraping off the clear coat over two weeks; an important lesson in preserving these old machines. They’re literally falling apart, even the ones in museums.
With the front panel cleaned, [Jörg] turned his attention to the guts of this panel. The panel was wired up for LEDs, and each of the tiny flashlight bulbs in the pushbuttons were replaced. The panel was then connected to a BlinkenBone with a ton of wiring, and the SIMH simulator installed. That turns this console into a complete, working PDP-10, without sucking down kilowatts of power and heating up the room
The PDP was found in an old storage unit in the Bronx. Moving several racks of equipment across the city is no small feat, but NYC Resistor members have it done it so many times they’ve got it down to a science.
Once power is applied, a stock PDP won’t actually do anything until the boot loader is keyed in from the CPU front panel. Thankfully this particular PDP-11 had its boot instructions printed on a label on the CPU. NYCR’s machine also includes an M9312 “bootstrap / Unibus terminator” board, which allows the machine to boot at the push of a button.
The team connected the racks, terminals, and drives. Carefully following the instructions, they actually got their PDP to boot up! Their next step is to start reading in some of the old tapes that came with the machine. We’re all waiting with bated breath to see what “digitized monkey brains” contains. Once the machine is fully functional, we hope they get it on the internet and load up The Hackaday Retro Edition.
At the Vintage Computer Festival last weekend, there was a wonderful representation of small 8 and 16-bit home computers from the 80s, an awful lot of PDP and VAX-based minicomputers, and even some very big iron in the form of a UNIVAC and a Cray. You might think this is a good representation of computing history, but there was actually a huge gap in the historical reality. Namely, workstations and minicomputers that weren’t made by DEC.
[Ian Primus] was one of the very few people to recognize this shortcoming and brought his PRIME minicomputer. This was a huge, “two half racks, side by side” computer running PRIMOS, an operating system written in FORTRAN. Of course this made it extremely popular with engineering teams, but that doesn’t mean [Ian] can’t have fun with it. He had two terminals set up, one running Dungeon (i.e. Zork pre-Infocom) and a text-based lunar lander game.
Because the VCF East is held in New Jersey, it’s probably no surprise a few vintage AT&T Unix boxes showed up. [Anthony Stramaglia] brought in a few very cool vintage Unix workstations, dating from the early to mid 80s. In the video, he shows off two AT&T boxes. The first is a UNIX PC, containing a 68010 clocked at a blistering 10 MHz. Next up is the UNIX PC’s bigger brother, the 3B2 400. This is the workstation found on just about every desk at Bell Labs in the 80s, meaning this is the same computer [Ken Thompson] and [Dennis Ritchie] used for their work on UNIX.