Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution is something like required reading for the hacker subculture, and Hackaday by extension. The first section of that book is all about early hackers and their adventures with the PDP-1 at MIT. The PDP-11 has earned a special place in hacker history for being the minicomputer used to write the first Unix. We’re always amazed to find how many of our readers have stories about programming PDP microcomputers, usually the PDP-11. Those of us young enough to have missed out on the PDP experience often have something of a second-hand nostalgia for the old machines. An exceptionally detailed article over at Ars Technica promises to get us started reliving the glory days, even if it is for the first time.
It turns out that there’s an emulator for the old minicomputers, the History Simulator, abbreviated SimH. The article gives step-by-step instructions to get the emulator running, booting Unix 2.11 on a virtual PDP-11. The fun doesn’t stop there. The write-up includes an intro the the PDP-11 hardware, and a crash-course to assembly programming for the beast. It’s a great look at how the stack, branching, and subroutines work under the hood. Most of it still applies to computing today, so it really is worth the read.
[RetroBytes] takes us on a whirlwind tour of the history of the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), its founder Ken Olsen, and during intermission builds up a working replica of the PDP-11 from a kit. DEC was a major player in the early computer industry, cranking out a number of models that were both industrial workhorses and used in computer laboratories to develop many of the operating systems and tools whose descendants we still use today. On top of that, DEC’s innovative, employee-friendly, and lightweight company structure was generally well-liked by its employees and a welcomed departure from the typical behemoths of the day.
This video takes us from the beginnings of DEC and its roots in MIT up to the PIP-11 era, highlighting major architectures and events along the way such as the PDP-1, PDP-8, and PDP-11. [RetroBytes] says he has a DEC Alpha sitting on the sidelines, so there may be a few follow-up videos in the future — perhaps one on the VAX as well.
Postpone your holiday shopping and spend some quality time with editors Mike Szczys and Elliot Williams as they sift through the week in Hackaday. Which programming language is the greenest? How many trackballs can a mouse possibly have? And can a Bluetooth dongle run DOOM? Join us to find out!
Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always, tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!
[Lee Adamson] is no stranger to classic computers. He recently picked up a Heathkit H11A which, as you might remember, is actually a PDP-11 from DEC. Well, technically, it is an LSI-11 but still. Like a proper LSI-11, the computer uses the DEC QBus. Unlike a lot of computers of its day, the H11 didn’t have a lot of switches and lights, but it did have an amazing software library for its day.
[Lee] takes us through a tour of all the different cards inside the thing. It is amazing when you think of today’s laptop motherboards that pack way more into a much smaller space. He also had to fix the power supply.
C and C++ are powerful tools, but not everyone has the patience (or enough semicolons) to use them all the time. For a lot of us, the preference is for something a little higher level than C. While Python is arguably more straightforward, sometimes the best choice is to work within a full-fledged operating system, even if it’s on a microcontroller. For that [Chloe Lunn] decided to port Unix to several popular microcontrollers.
This is an implementation of the PDP-11 minicomputer running a Unix-based operating system as an emulator. The PDP-11 was a popular minicomputer platform from the ’70s until the early 90s, which influenced a lot of computer and operating system designs in its time. [Chloe]’s emulator runs on the SAMD51, SAMD21, Teensy 4.1, and any Arduino Mega and is also easily portable to any other microcontrollers. Right now it is able to boot and run Unix but is currently missing support for some interfaces and other hardware.
[Chloe] reports that performance on some of the less-capable microcontrollers is not great, but that it does run perfectly on the Teensy and the SAMD51. This isn’t the first time that someone has felt the need to port Unix to something small; we featured a build before which uses the same PDP-11 implementation on a 32-bit STM32 microcontroller.
Like many Hackaday readers, [Steven Stallion] has had his eyes on the replica PDP-11 created by [Oscar Vermeulen] for some time now, and this summer he finally got the opportunity to build one himself. But while most owners might be content to just watch the Raspberry Pi based faux-retro computer blink away on a shelf, he wanted to explore putting the machine to more practical use. The end result is the PiDP-11 I/O Expander, an add-on that lets the modern minicomputer interact with the world around it.
Developed after some discussion with [Oscar] himself, the Microchip MCP23016 based expander board fits neatly onto the PiDP-11 PCB, and [Steven] has made sure his installation guide meshes well with the replica’s documentation. The Pi’s I2C bus is actually broken out on the original PCB, so you just need to solder a header on and run some jumpers to where the expander is mounted. You’ll need to pull 5 V as well, and the installation guide has a few tips on convenient connection points.
Each expander board gives you 16 GPIO pins which can be accessed over I2C, including support for interrupts which has been connected to GPIO 19 on the Raspberry Pi. [Steven] notes that you should be able to stack multiples of his expander up should you need even more free pins, though some fiddling with pull-up resistors and I2C addresses will likely be necessary.
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.