It’s probably a dream most of us share, to stumble upon a dusty hall full of fascinating abandoned tech frozen in time as though its operators walked away one day and simply never returned. It’s something documented by some Russian urban explorers who found an unremarkable office building with one of its floors frozen sometime around the transition from Soviet Union to Russian Federation. In it they found their abandoned tech, in the form of a cross-section of Soviet-era computers from the 1970s onwards.
As you might expect, in a manner it mirrors the development of civilian computing on the capitalist side of the Iron Curtain over a similar period, starting with minicomputers the size of several large refrigerators and ending with desktop microcomputers. The minis seem to all be Soviet clones of contemporary DEC machines. with some parts of them even looking vaguely familiar. The oldest is a Saratov-2, a PDP/8 clone which we’re told is rare enough for no examples to have been believed to have survived until this discovery. We then see a succession of PDP/11 clones each of which becomes ever smaller with advancements in semiconductor integration, starting with the fridge-sized units and eventually ending up with desktop versions that resemble 1980s PCs.
While mass-market Western desktop machines followed the path of adopting newer architectures such as the Z80 or the 8086 the Soviets instead took their minicomputer technology to that level. It would be interesting to speculate how these machines might further have developed over the 1990s had history been different. Meanwhile we all have a tangible legacy of Soviet PDP/11 microcomputers in the form of Tetris, which was first written on an Elektronika 60.
We know that among our readers there is likely to be a few who encountered similar machines in their heyday, and we hope they’ll share their recollections in the comments. Meanwhile we hope that somehow this collection can be preserved one day. If your thirst for dusty mincomputers knows no bounds, read about the collectors who bought an IBM machine on eBay and got more than they bargained for.
Learning a new skill is fun, especially one that could land you a new job. We don’t think you’ll find too much demand for PDP-11 assembly language programmers, but if it still interests you, check out [ChibiAkumas’s] video that starts a series on that subject for “absolute beginners.”
The PDP-11 is a venerable computer, but you can still find simulators ranging from SIMH to browser-based virtual devices with front panels. If you want real hardware, there is a PDP-11 on a chip that is still around (or you can score the real chips, sometimes) and there are some nice hardware simulations, too.
The DEC PDP series of minicomputers occupy a special place in computing history for us, because as the workhorses of commercial computing from the 1960s through to some time in the 1990s they provided the bedrock upon which so many of the computing technologies we take for granted today were built. If we think of any PDP, the chances are we’ll be imagining fridge-sized units with panels of blinkenlights that have become iconic in their own right. But that wasn’t the sum of PDP hardware, for at the end of the series of machines there were produced PDP-11s containing what had previously needed those fridge-sized units on a single chip-sized module. [Peter Schranz] had one of these modules, a DCJ11 that he’d salvaged in the 1990s, and he set to with it in making a modern desktop version of a PDP-11.
The PDP-11/hack is a PDP-11 as a set of daughter cards on a lightly modified Q-bus backplane. The DCJ11 and its memory sit on one, an emulated disc controller on another, and finally a multifunction board brings together clock and serial functions. Where the original would have had acres of 74 logic the PDP-11/hack uses more modern CPLDs and microcontrollers to provide glue logic and to emulate now-obsolete components. Given a serial terminal it will boot and run PDP operating systems and software, though it lacks a set of blinkenlights to display its status.
Digital Equipment Corp.’s PDP-11 is one of the most important computers in history. It’s the home of Unix, although that’s arguable, and it’s still being used in every application, from handling nuclear control rods to selling Ed Sheeran tickets on Ticketmaster. As the timeline of PDP-11 machines progressed, the hardware did as well, and by the time the PDP was eclipsed by the VAXxen, there were PDP-11s on a single chip. The Eastern Bloc took notice and produced their own PDP-11 on a chip. This is the 1801-series CPU, and like most soviet electronics from the Cold War, they’re readily available on eBay.
This project is the outgrowth of [SHAOS]’ project for last year’s Hackaday Prize, the PDPii. This was a computer built around a backplane that replicated the PDP-11 using a KR1801VM2 CPU, the Soviet not-a-clone clone of the PDP-11. This project is basically a PDP-11/03 system, except it was made in this century, and you can put it in any computer case, with bonus points awarded for RGB lighting and liquid cooling.
This year’s project, the PDPjr, eschews standardization to something that is far more unique. This build is more or less a single board computer with a character LCD display and a real keyboard. Think of this as the PDP-11 equivalent of the TRS-80 Model 100, a machine widely regarded as being the first laptop.
There’s still a lot of work to go, but [SHAOS] has written a ‘Hello World’ for this chip, and is getting those words to display on the character LCD. That’s a great first step and we can’t wait to see where this project ends up.
The UNIBUS architecture for DEC’s PDPs and Vaxxen was a stroke of genius. If you wanted more memory in your minicomputer, just add another card. Need a drive? Plug it into the backplane. Of course, with all those weird cards, these old UNIBUS PDPs are hard to keep running. The UniBone is the solution to this problem. It puts Linux on a UNIBUS bridge, allowing this card to serve as a memory emulator, a test console, a disk emulator, or any other hardware you can think of.
The key to this build is the BeagleBone, everyone’s second-favorite single board computer that has one feature the other one doesn’t: PRUs, or a programmable real-time unit, that allows you to blink a lot of pins very, very fast. We’ve seen the BeagleBone be used as Linux in a terminal, as the rest of the computer for an old PDP-10 front panel and as the front end for a PDP-11/03.
In this build, the Beaglebone’s PRU takes care of interfacing to the UNIBUS backplane, sending everything to a device emulator running as an application. The UniBone can be configured as memory or something boring, but one of these can emulate four RL02 drives, giving a PDP-11 an amazing forty megabytes of storage. The real killer app of this implementation is giving these emulated drives a full complement of glowing buttons for load, ready, fault, and write protect, just like the front of a real RL02 drive. This panel is controlled over the I2C bus on the Beaglebone, and it’s a work of art. Of course, emulating the drive means you can’t use it as the world’s largest thumb drive, but that’s a small price to pay for saving these old computers.
The PDP-11 is perhaps the most important computer in history. This was the king of all minicomputers, and once you get past the amazing front panels of the 11/20, 11/40, and 11/70, you’ll find PDP-11s everywhere. Heathkit sold one. It was the smallest computer that could run Unix. There were desktop versions sold as DEC Professionals. I have been told Ticketmaster — the entire backend of all event ticket sales in the United States — still runs on PDP-11s.
One of the interesting bits of the PDP-11 is the miniaturization that happened over the course of its development. Over time, the Unibus processor cards of the earlier models were shrunk down into a single chip. This PDP-on-a-chip was then cloned by the Soviets, and like most vintage Eastern European electronics, they’re all readily available on eBay.
For his Hackaday Prize entry, [SHAOS] is taking one of these chips and turning it into a modern machine. The PDPii is a project to bring the PDP-11 back to life in the form of an Open Source motherboard with a Mini-ITX motherboard. Is it game-changing? No, not really; you could buy a desktop PDP-11 thirty years ago. This project, though, is taking new old stock chips you can buy for ten dollars and turning it into something resembling a modern system. Finally, Ticketmaster can upgrade.
The design of this project doesn’t quite meet the spec for the Mini-ITX form factor; it’s based off the RC2014 backplane Z80 computer, but desktop computer cases are cheap, as are power supplies, and I’m sure someone out there knows how to fit an eight inch floppy in a five and a quarter inch hole.
The key feature for this Mini-ITX backplane PDP-11 is a redesign of the Q-bus found in later PDPs to something that’s a bit smaller, a bit cheaper to manufacture, and still has all the relevant pins accessible. With some reconfiguring of the baroque DEC standards, [SHAOS] came up with the Bread-Board Friendly Q-bus Extended, or BBQ-Bus+. The next step for this project is gathering up a few PDP-11 compatible Russian КР1801ВМ2 CPUs and going to town on the architecture of what is probably the most replicated computer design ever.
Hands up if you feel your spiritual home is in front of a terminal with a “DIGITAL” logo on it. It’s a name that has long ago been subsumed into first Compaq and then by extension HP, but it’s one with a lot of history when it comes to computing.
From the start of the electronic computing age, there were the computers we’d probably now describe as mainframes. Big computers that cost the GDP of a small country, filled an entire floor of a building, and could only be found in government departments, universities, and large companies. By the 1960s, the technologies existed to build computers that broke this mould, could be bought within the budget of a smaller organisation, and for which you didn’t need a huge air-conditioned basement to house. These so-called minicomputers were the great revolution of that era because they bought the fruits of computing into everyday business, and probably the most successful of the companies that produced them was the Maynard, Massachusetts-based Digital Equipment Corporation, or DEC.
DEC produced a succession of minicomputers in their PDP line, of which the most successful was their PDP-11 series. These were 16-bit minicomputers that remained in their product line from their launch in 1970 through to the early 1990s, and were available in a succession of configurations and physical form factors. The famous view of a PDP-11 is of a set of floor-to-ceiling racks, but there were also standalone terminal models, and desktop models. One of these, a PDP-11/03 from 1975, has come into the hands of [Joerg], and he’s used it to craft his LSIbox, the PDP11/03 card frame packaged with a BeagleBone for access via a modern-day interface. It’s a build in the vein of modern tube audio amplifiers that feature the retro hardware on the top of their cases, the card frame is exposed as a feature on top of a white case that is featureless except for a genuine PDP-11/03 front panel.
You might ask why anyone would do this in order to run PDP-11 software when the BeagleBone could almost certainly emulate the vintage hardware much faster than the real thing. But to take that view is to miss the point; the PDP-11 series are a seminal part of computing history, and to have genuine PDP-11 hardware on your desk is quite an achievement.