A Modern Take On The “Paperclip Computer”

Back in 1968, a book titled “How to Build a Working Digital Computer” claimed that the sufficiently dedicated reader could assemble their own functioning computer at home using easily obtainable components. Most notably, the design utilized many elements that were fashioned from bent paperclips. It’s unclear how many readers actually assembled one of these so-called “Paperclip Computers”, but today we’re happy to report that [Mike Gardi] has completed his interpretation of the 50+ year old homebrew computer.

A view behind the computer’s ALU

The purist might be disappointed to see how far [Mike] has strayed from the original, but we see his embrace of modern construction techniques as a necessary upgrade. He’s recreated the individual computer components as they were described in the book, but this time plywood and wheat bulbs have given way to 3D printed panels and LEDs. While the details may be different, the end goal is the same: a programmable digital computer on a scale that can be understood by the operator.

To say that [Mike] did a good job of documenting his build would be an understatement. He’s spent the last several months covering every aspect of the build on Hackaday.io, giving his followers a fantastic look at what goes into a project of this magnitude. He might not have bent many paperclips for his Working Digital Computer (WDC-1), but he certainly designed and fabricated plenty of impressive custom components. We wouldn’t be surprised if some of them, such as the 3D printed slide switch we covered last month, started showing up in other projects.

While the WDC-1 is his latest and certainly greatest triumph, [Mike] is no stranger to recreating early digital computers. We’ve been bringing you word of his impressive replicas for some time now, and each entry has been even more impressive than the last. With the WDC-1 setting the bar so high, we can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

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DIY Computer — 1968 Style

What does it mean to “build your own computer?” Today, it is likely to mean you bought a motherboard, a power supply, and a case and put it all together. You might even have made an embedded computer using a few chips, including an off the shelf CPU. However, there are those guys (like me) who have built entire computers using FPGAs and some (not like me) who have built computers out of TTL chips, discrete components, and even relays and we have covered quite a few of them.

It hasn’t always been that easy. Components are readily available now and relatively cheap (especially considering inflation). In the 1960’s, simple components cost more than you pay for them today and back then your hypothetical self was making less money. In just about every way imaginable, the cost was prohibitive.

clipSo what did you do if you were a kid saving money from a paper route in 1968 and you wanted to build a computer? Maybe you turned to How to Build a Working Digital Computer a book published in 1968 by [Edward Alcosser], [James Phillips], and [Allen Wolk]. This book did as the title promised: you could build a working digital computer. The components, though, were paper clips, tin cans, thread spools, and other household items. The only real electronic components you had to use were light bulbs and a battery, although you might also use store-bought switches in some places instead of the homemade versions shown in the book.

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