Classic 80s Text-To-Speech On Classic 80s Hardware

Those of us who were around in the late 70s and into the 80s might remember the Speak & Spell, a children’s toy with a remarkable text-to-speech synthesizer. While it sounds dated by today’s standards, it was revolutionary for the time and was riding a wave of text-to-speech functionality that was starting to arrive to various computers of the era. While a lot of them used dedicated hardware to perform the speech synthesis, some computers were powerful enough to do this in software, but others were not quite able. The VIC-20 was one of the latter, but thanks to an ESP8266 it has been retroactively given this function.

This project comes to us from [Jan Derogee], a connoisseur of this retrocomputer, and builds on the work by [Earle F. Philhower] who ported the retro speech synthesis software known as SAM from assembly to C which made it possible to run on the ESP8266. Audio playback is handled on the I2S port, but some work needed to be done to get this to work smoothly since this port also handles the communication with the VIC-20. Once this was sorted out, a patch was made to be able to hear the computer’s audio as well as the speech synthesizer’s. Finally, a serial command interface was designed by [Jan] which allows for control of the module.

While not many of us have VIC-20s sitting at home, it’s still an interesting project that shows the broad scope of a small and inexpensive chip like the ESP8266 which would have had a hefty price tag back in the 1980s. If you have other 80s hardware laying around waiting to be put to work, though, take a look at this project which brings new vocabulary words to that old classic Speak & Spell.

Continue reading “Classic 80s Text-To-Speech On Classic 80s Hardware”

PS/2 wireless dongle

The Wireless PS/2 Keyboard That Never Was

The PS/2-style port was once about as ubiquitous on PCs as USB connectors are today, and more than a few of us accumulated a fair collection of keyboards and mice that sported the 6-pin mini-DIN plug. They’re not nearly as common today, but when you need one, you need one, so if your stockpile of PS/2 keyboards has dwindled to nothing, you might want to look at rolling your own PS/2 remote keyboard dongle.

That backstory on [Remy Sharp]’s build starts with his acquisition of a neptUNO, a 160€ FPGA retrocomputer that gives you access to just about every Z80 and 6502 computer of yesteryear. While the box supports USB keyboards, [Remy] had trouble getting one to work. So out came a Wemos D1 Mini, which was wired up to a stub of PS/2 cable. The microcontroller is powered by the PS/2 port, and connects to the WiFi network on boot-up and starts a WebSocket server. It also served up a page of HTML, which lets him connect with any device and send keystrokes to the neptUNO. He also added a couple of hardware buttons to the dongle, to access menus on the neptUNO directly. The video below shows it in action.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, [Remy] says he took inspiration for this build from [Ben Eater]’s excellent PS/2 deep dive. We’d like to think he saw that here first, but either way, it’s a valuable reference on how keyboards used to work.

Continue reading “The Wireless PS/2 Keyboard That Never Was”

An Atari ST running a campground reservation system

Atari ST Still Manages Campground Reservations After 36 Years

“Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke”. That’s what we guess [Frans Bos] has been thinking for the past few decades, as he kept using his Atari ST to run a booking system for the family campground. (Video, embedded below.)

Although its case has yellowed a bit, the trusty old machine is still running 24/7 from April to October, as it has done every year since 1985. In the video [Frans] demonstrates the computer and its custom campground booking system to [Victor Bart].

To be exact, we’re looking at an Atari 1040STF, which runs on a 68000 CPU and has one full megabyte of RAM: in fact it was one of the first affordable machines with that much memory. Output is through a monochrome display, which is tiny compared to the modern TFT standing next to it, but was apparently much better than the monitor included with a typical DOS machine back in the day.

Since no campground management software was available when he bought the computer, [Frans] wrote his own, complete with a graphical map showing the location of each campsite. Reservations can be made, modified and printed with just a few keystrokes. The only concession to the modern world is the addition of a USB drive; we can imagine it was becoming difficult to store and exchange data using floppy disks in 2021.

We love seeing ancient hardware being actively used in the modern world: whether it’s floppy disks inside a Boeing 747 or an Amiga running a school’s HVAC system. Thanks to [Tinkerer] for the tip.

Continue reading “Atari ST Still Manages Campground Reservations After 36 Years”

FPGA Retrocomputer: Return To Moncky

Part of the reason that retrocomputers are still so popular despite their obsolescence is that it’s possible to understand the entire inner workings of a computer like this, from the transistors all the way up to the software. Comparatively, it will likely be a long time (if ever) before anyone is building a modern computer from discrete components. To illustrate this point, plenty of 8-bit computers are available to either restore from original 80s hardware or to build from kits. And if you’d like to get even deeper into the weeds you can design your own computer including the instruction set completely from the ground up using an FPGA.

This project, called the Moncky project, is a step above the usual 8-bit computer builds as it is actually a 16-bit computer. It is built around an Arty Spartan-7 FPGA dev board running around 20 MHz and has access to 2 x 128 kB dual-port RAM for memory. To access the outside world there is a VGA output, PS/2 capability, SPI, and uses an SD card as a hard drive. This project really shines in the software, though, as the project creator [Kris Demuynck] builds everything from scratch in order to illustrate how everything works for educational purposes, and is currently working on implementing a C compiler to make programming the computer easier.

All of the project files, as well as all of the code, are available on the project’s GitHub page if you’d like to follow along or build on this homebrew 16-bit computer. It’s actually the third iteration of this computer, with the Moncky-1 and Moncky-2 being used to develop the more basic building blocks for this computer. While it’s not the first 16-bit computer we’ve seen implemented on an FPGA, it is one of the few that builds its own RISC instruction set and associated software rather than cloning a known existing processor. We’ve also seen some interesting x86 implementations on an FPGA as well.

Thanks to [koen-ieee] for the tip!

Original Commodore 64 ad

Love Letter To Commodore 64 Ads Takes Us Down Memory Lane

If you shop, you can get a pretty nice laptop for around $595. Maybe not the top of the line, but still pretty nice with multiple cores, a large hard drive, and a big color screen. But in the 1980s, the Commodore 64 bragged that for $595, they’d give you more than anyone else at twice the price. After all, 64K of RAM! Graphics with 16 whole colors! [Lunduke] dug up a bunch of these ads and has some thoughts on them and we really enjoyed the trip down memory lane.

If you look at other contemporary computers, they did cost more although sometimes it wasn’t a fair comparison. The TRS80 III, for example, cost $999 with 16K of RAM but it also had its own monitor — not color, though.

It is amazing to think that we’ve gone from where 16K was a reasonable amount of RAM in a personal computer to where it isn’t even worth having a flash drive with that capacity. We also can’t help but note that while computing power per dollar is through the roof now, computers aren’t actually that much more fun. We enjoyed interfacing a teletype to our 1802 ELF and working out a 300 baud modem for our TRS-80. Sure, we didn’t have Skyrim or HD movies, but we still have fun.

If you want to relive these exciting days, it is easy enough to build your own C64 with varying degrees of fidelity. It is trivial to emulate the thing on any kind of modern hardware, too.

Thousands Of Discrete MOSFETs Make Up This Compact CPU-Less Computer

How long has it been since a computer could boast about the fact that it contained 2,500 transistors? Probably close to half a century now, at a guess. So in a world with a couple of billion transistors per chip, is a 2,500-transistor computer really something to brag about? Yes. Yes, it is.

The CPU-less computer, called the TraNOR by its creator [Dennis Kuschel], is an elaboration on his previous MyNOR, another CPU-less machine that used a single NOR-gate made of discrete transistors as the core of its arithmetic-logic unit (ALU). Despite its architectural simplicity, MyNOR was capable of some pretty respectable performance, and even managed to play a decent game of Tetris. TraNOR, on the other hand, is much more complicated, mainly due to the fact that instead of relying on 74HC-series chips, [Dennis] built every single gate on the machine from discrete MOSFETs. The only chips on the four stacked PCBs are a trio of memory chips; we don’t fault him at all for the decision not to build the memory — he may be dedicated, but even art has its limits. And TraNOR is indeed a work of art — the video below shows the beautiful board layouts, with seemingly endless arrays of SMD transistors all neatly arranged and carefully soldered. And extra points for using Wintergatan’s marble machine melody as the soundtrack, too.

As much as we loved the original, TraNOR is really something special. Not only is it beautiful, but it’s functional — it’s even backward-compatible with MyNOR’s custom software. Hats off to [Dennis] for pulling off another wonderful build, and for sharing it with us.

Continue reading “Thousands Of Discrete MOSFETs Make Up This Compact CPU-Less Computer”

Ello Is A Tiny Computer With A C — Interpreter?

When we talk about a retrocomputer, it’s our normal practice to start with the hardware. But with [KnivD]’s ELLO 1A while the hardware is interesting enough it’s not the stand-out feature. We are all used to microcomputers with a BASIC interpreter, but how many have we seen with a C interpreter? The way C works simply doesn’t lend itself to anything but a compiler and linker, so even with a pared-down version of the language it still represents a significant feat to create a working interpreter.

The hardware centres around a PIC32MX, and has onboard SD card, VGA, sound, and a PS/2 keyboard port. The PCB is a clever design allowing construction with either through-hole or surface-mount components to allow maximum accessibility for less advanced solderers. Full information can be found on the project’s website, but sadly for those wanting an easy life only the PCB is as yet available for purchase.

We’re privileged to see a huge array of retrocomputing projects here at Hackaday, but while they’re all impressive pieces of work it’s rare for one to produce something truly unexpected. This C interpreter certainly isn’t something we’ve seen before, so we’re intrigued to see what projects develop around it.