CT Scans Help Reverse Engineer Mystery Module

The degree to which computed tomography has been a boon to medical science is hard to overstate. CT scans give doctors a look inside the body that gives far more information about the spatial relationship of structures than a plain X-ray can. And as it turns out, CT scans are pretty handy for reverse engineering mystery electronic modules, too.

The fact that the mystery module in question is from Apollo-era test hardware leaves little room for surprise that [Ken Shirriff] is the person behind this fascinating little project. You’ll recall that [Ken] recently radiographically reverse engineered a pluggable module of unknown nature, using plain X-ray images taken at different angles to determine that the undocumented Motorola module was stuffed full of discrete components that formed part of a square wave to sine wave converter.

The module for this project, a flip-flop from Motorola and in the same form factor, went into an industrial CT scanner from an outfit called Lumafield, where X-rays were taken from multiple angles. The images were reassembled into a three-dimensional view by the scanner’s software, which gave a stunningly clear view of the components embedded within the module’s epoxy body. The cordwood construction method is obvious, and it’s pretty easy to tell what each component is. The transistors are obvious, as are the capacitors and diodes. The resistors were a little more subtle, though — careful examination revealed that some are carbon composition, while others are carbon film. It’s even possible to pick out which diodes are Zeners.

The CT scan data, along with some more traditional probing for component values, let [Ken] reverse engineer the whole circuit, which turned out to be a little different than a regular J-K flip-flop. Getting a non-destructive look inside feels a little like sitting alongside the engineers who originally built these things, which is pretty cool.

Reverse Engineering The SEGA Mega Drive

With the widespread adoption of emulators, almost anyone can start playing video games from bygone eras. Some systems are even capable of supporting homebrew games, with several having active communities that are still creating new games even decades later. This ease of programming for non-PC platforms wasn’t always so easy, though. If you wanted to develop games on a now-antique console when it was still relatively new, you had to jump through a lot of hoops. [Tore] shows us how it would have been done with his Sega Mega Drive development kit that he built from scratch.

While [Tore] had an Atari ST, he wanted to do something a little more cutting edge and at the time there was nothing better than the Mega Drive (or the Genesis as it was known in North America). It had a number of features that lent the platform to development, namely the Motorola 68000 chip that was very common for the time and as a result had plenty of documentation available. He still needed to do quite a bit of reverse engineering of the system to get a proper dev board running, though, starting with figuring out how the cartridge system worked. He was able to build a memory bank that functioned as a re-writable game cartridge.

With the hard parts out of the way [Tore] set about building the glue logic, the startup firmware which interfaced with his Atari ST, and then of course wiring it all together. He was eventually able to get far enough along to send programs to the Mega Drive that would allow him to control sprites on a screen with the controller, but unfortunately he was interrupted before he could develop any complete games. The amount of research and work to get this far is incredible, though, and there may be some helpful nuggets for anyone in the homebrew Mega Drive community today. If you don’t want to get this deep into the Mega Drive hardware, though, you can build a cartridge that allows for development on native Sega hardware instead.

Build A Barebones 68000

The 68000 chip was ubiquitous in the computing world well past its heyday in the 1980s. It was used as the basis for many PCs and video game consoles, and even in embedded microcontrollers. Now, one of its niche applications is learning about the internal functions of computers. 68000 builds are fairly common when building homebrew computers from scratch, but projects like these can be complicated and quickly get out of hand. This 68000 project, on the other hand, gets the job done with the absolute minimum of parts and really dives into the assembly language programming on these chips. (Google Translate from Spanish)

[osbox68] built this computer by first simulating its operation. Once he was satisfied with that, the next step was to actually build the device. Along with the MC68008 it only uses two other TTL chips, a respectable 32 kilobytes of ram, and additionally supports a serial port and an expansion bus. A few 74-series chips round out the build including a 74HC574 used for debugging support. With a custom PCB to tie everything together, it’s one of the most minimal 68000 builds we’ve seen that still includes everything needed to be completely functional.

After all, including the TTL and 74XX chips the entire circuit board only uses 10 integrated circuits and a few other passive elements for a completely functional retro computer. [osbox68] also includes complete schematics for building a PCB based on these chips to make construction that much easier. Of course, emulating an old microcontroller instead of using TTL components can save a lot of real estate on a PCB especially if you’re using something like an FPGA.

Gorgeous Perfboard Build Puts 1-Bit Controller Back To Work

Eight-bit computers are all the retro rage these days, with people rushing to build computers either from chips like the 6502 or the Z80, or even recreating these chips from a collection of TTL logic chips. And while we respect and covet those builds immensely, 8-bit computers aren’t the only game going on. To wit we present this lovely single-board computer sporting a 1-bit CPU.

The machine, which creator [Simon Boak] cheekily dubs “the world’s least-powerful computer,” is based on the Motorola MC14500B, a chip from the 1970s that was aimed at the industrial controls market. There, the chip’s limited instruction set and narrow bus width were not as limiting as they would be in a general-purpose computer. In fact, since the chip requires an external program counter, it offers a great degree of design flexibility. [Simon] chose a 4-bit address space, but with a little wizardry he was able to get eight bits of input in the form of DIP switches and eight bits of output LEDs. It’s not good for much past making lights blink, but it does that with nary an Arduino in view — although it does sport a couple of 555s.

[Simon]’s goal for the build was simply to build cool from an unusual chip, and we think he succeeded. In fact, we can’t recall seeing a neater perfboard build — it’s almost to the level of circuit sculpture. We especially like the hybrid solder and wirewrap construction. We’ve seen builds based on this chip before, but never one so neat and attractive.

[via r/electronics]

Retro Computer Trainer Gets A Raspberry Pi Refit

We know what you’re thinking: this is yet another one of those “Gut the retro gear for its cool old case and then fill it up with IoT junk” projects. Well, rest assured that extending and enhancing this 1970s computer trainer is very much an exercise in respecting the original design, and while there’s a Pi inside,  it doesn’t come close to spoiling the retro goodness.

Like many of a similar vintage as [Scott M. Baker], the Heathkit catalog was perhaps only leafed through marginally less than the annual Radio Shack catalog. One particularly desirable Heathkit item was the ET-3400 microcomputer learning system, which was basically a 6800-based computer surrounded by a breadboarding area for experimentation. [Scott] got a hold of one of these, but without the optional expansion accessory that would allow it to do interesting things such as running BASIC or even supporting a serial port. So [Scott] decided to roll his own expansion board.

The expansion card that [Scott] designed is not strictly a faithful reproduction, at least in terms of the original BOM. He turned to more modern — and more readily available — components, but still managed to provide the serial port, cassette interface, and RAM/ROM expansion of the original unit. The Raspberry Pi is an optional add-on, which just allows him to connect wirelessly if he wants. The card fits into a 3D-printed case that sits below the ET-3400 and maintains the original trainer’s look and feel. The longish video below shows the build and gives a tour of the ET-3400, both before and after the mods.

It looks as though trainers like these and other artifacts from the early days of the PC revolution are getting quite collectible. Makes us wish we hadn’t thrown some things out.

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Run Java On An Amiga

In the modern world, we take certain tools for granted. High-level programming languages such as C or Python haven’t been around that long in the grand scheme of things, and Java has only existed since the ’90s. Getting these tools working on machines that predate them is more of a challenge than anything, and [Michael Kohn] was more than willing to tackle this one. He recently got Java running on a Commodore Amiga.

The Amgia predates Java itself by almost a decade, so this process wasn’t exactly straightforward. The platform has a number of coprocessors that were novel for their time but aren’t as commonplace now, taking care of such tasks such as graphics, sound, and memory handling. Any psoftware running on the Amiga needs to be in a specially formatted program as well, so that needed to be taken care of, even loading Java on the computer in the first place took some special work using a null modem cable rather than the floppy disk an Amiga would have used back in the day.

Loading Java on an antique Amiga is certainly a badge of honor, but [Michael] isn’t a stranger to Java and the Motorola 68000s found in Amigas. There’s a 68000 in the Sega Genesis as well, and we’ve seen how [Michael] was able to run Java on that too.

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Chuck peddle father of 6502

Honoring Chuck Peddle; Father Of The 6502 And The Chips That Went With It

Chuck Peddle, the patriarch of the 6502 microprocessor, died recently. Most people don’t know the effect that he and his team of engineers had on their lives. We often take the world of microprocessor for granted as a commonplace component in computation device, yet there was a time when there were just processors, and they were the size of whole printed circuit boards.

Chuck had the wild idea while working at Motorola that they could shrink the expensive processor board down to an integrated circuit, a chip, and that it would cost much less, tens of dollars instead of ten thousand plus. To hear Chuck talk about it, he got a cease-and-desist letter from the part of Motorola that made their living selling $14,000 processor boards and to knock off all of the noise about a $25 alternative.

In Chuck’s mind this was permission to take his idea, and the engineering team, elsewhere. Chuck and his team started MOS Technologies in the 1970’s in Norristown PA, and re-purposed their work on the Motorola 6800 to become the MOS 6502. Lawsuits followed.

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