IBM 1401 Runs FORTRAN II Once More

The IBM 1401 is undeniably a classic computer. One of IBM’s most “affordable” mainframes, it ruled the small business computing world of the 1960’s. Unfortunately, computers aren’t often thought of as treasured heirlooms, only a handful of these machines survive today. The computer history museum has two machines. One from Germany, and the other recovered from a basement in Connecticut back in 2008. [CuriousMarc] and the rest of the team at the museum have been working diligently to restore the 1401, and they’ve hit quite a milestone — They can now compile and run FORTRAN II code.

Getting the 1401 to run FORTRAN II itself is quite an accomplishment. The hardest part was dealing with the 729 vacuum column tape drives. The team spent years building a hardware emulator which takes the place of the real drives. The emulator is driven by an old PC running windows. Tape images are stored as files, which can be loaded, rewound, and run just like a real 729.

Emulators are great, but [Mark] and his team wanted this to run on the real hardware. They first had to re-create a FORTRAN compiler tape. They ran a tape copier program on the 1401, then loaded an image of the compiler on their emulator. The computer dutifully copied the image to a real tape drive.

The team also needed a punched card deck of FORTRAN source code to compile and run. The first example in the FORTRAN manual is a Hilbert Matrix program. The team could have used a keypunch machine to punch the cards for the program, but that is a painstaking and error-prone process. One mistake, and they would have to re-punch an entire card — much like using an old typewriter with no White-Out or correction ribbon. Instead, they typed the source into a PC, then converted the file to a tape image. A small program instructed the 1401 to punch the source code out on cards for them.

At the moment of truth, shown first in the video, the 1401 reads FORTRAN II from tape, pulls in the source code from punched cards, compiles, runs, and then prints the result on its line printer. All the original hardware singing along just like it did in 1959.

If you haven’t been to the Computer History Museum yet, check it out! It’s also the site of Vintage Computing Festival West.

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A New Life for a Dead VIC-20

What was the first computer you bent to your programmatic will? If you’re old enough, it was probably a Commodore. For [Jagged-path], it was a VIC-20. After finding a broken one on Kijiji, he recaptured that 80s feeling with VicPi, a revitalization project that marries modern computing power with vintage form factor.

The VicPi can be used as a standalone computer or a USB keyboard for an external computer. As you’ve probably guessed, there’s a Raspberry Pi involved. There is also a Keyrah board, which is arguably the easiest way to convert Commodore (and Amiga) keystrokes to USB without breaking a sweat.

There are a lot of nice touches that really make this project. A toggle switch on the back selects between VicPi mode and keyboard mode, and the distinction is made with a two-color LED in place of the VIC-20’s power LED. [Jagged-path] used panel mount cables to extend the HDMI, 3.5mm, and USB ports and ran them out to a custom metal panel that’s treated with rubberized black paint. Another nice touch: the dedicated keyboard port is USB-B, so it’s easy to differentiate from the Pi inputs.

If you have a working VIC-20 but not the rare Votrax Type ‘n Talk synthesizer peripheral, you can use an old Android phone to hear those Voodoo Castle responses.

Go Retro to Build a Spectre and Meltdown-Proof x86 Desktop

[Yeo Kheng Meng] had a question: what is the oldest x86 processor that is still supported by a modern Linux kernel? Furthermore, is it actually possible to use modern software with this processor? It’s a question that surely involves experimentation, staring into the bluescreen abyss of BIOS configurations, and compiling your own kernel. Considering Linux dropped support for the 386 in 2012, the obvious answer is a 486. This supposition was tested, and the results are fantastic. You can, indeed, install a modern Linux on an ancient desktop.

This project got its start last month at a Super Silly Hackathon where [Yeo] and [Hui Jing] installed Damn Small Linux on an ancient IBM PS/1 desktop of 1993 vintage. The hardware consists of an AMD 486 clone running at 133MHz, 64 MB of RAM, a 48x IDE CDROM drive (wow!), a floppy emulator, a Sound Blaster, 10Mbps Ethernet card, and a CompactFlash to IDE adapter. By any account, this is a pimped-out rig for 1993 that would have cost more than a car at the time. The hardware works, but can you run a modern Linux kernel on it?

[Yeo] decided to install the Gentoo x86 minimal installation, but sanity and time constraints meant compiling a kernel on a 486 wasn’t happening. That was done on a modern Thinkpad after partitioning all the drives, verifying all the compilation parameters, and configuring the kernel itself. The bootloader is LILO (Grub2 didn’t work), but for the most part, this is entirely modern software running on a 25-year-old machine. The step-by-step instructions for becoming a /g/entooman on a 486 are available on GitHub.

The entire (boring) boot process can be seen in the video below. One interesting application of this build is that the 486 does not support out-of-order execution, making this completely safe from Meltdown and Spectre attacks. It’s an impressive retrocomputing achievement that right now could not be more timely.

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Tips on Building the BlackIce BBC Micro

You can look at pictures and video of the Grand Canyon, Paris, New York City or anywhere else, and yet when you finally see those places with your own eyes it is somehow different. Fielding an old computer like the BBC Micro on an FPGA has been done before. But there’s always something to learn when you do it yourself. [Machina] took a BlackIce board and made a BBC Micro replica, but he learned a few things along the way and decided to share them for our benefit.

He used the BlackIce board with [Dave’s] BBC Micro implementation that we’ve covered before. [Machina] was impressed that the board takes PMOD plug ins, so it was easy — almost — to add a VGA and keyboard port. Although both gave him some unexpected problems.

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Can This Commodore 64 Be Saved?

If you are a certain age, there’s a fair chance your first computer was a Commodore 64. These machines are antiques now, and [RetroManCave] received one from a friend’s loft in unknown condition. He’s made two out of three videos covering the machine, its history, and its internals. Assisting is Commodore 64 expert [Jan Beta] who apparently owned one way back when. You can see the first two videos, below.

The machine isn’t as old as you might think — it is the “newer” case style (circa 1987). [Jan] gives a great overview of the different motherboards you might encounter if you are lucky enough to come across one of these in a dumpster somewhere.

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Stromberg Carlson Charactron Tube

Flat panel TVs have spoiled us. It used to be that a big display took up a lot of room on your desk or living room because of the depth of the CRT’s electron gun. We wonder what the designers of the charactron would think if they could see our big flat screens today. Never heard of a charactron? Check out [uniservo’s] video of one of these old character display tubes.

You might think the device is just a simple small CRT. However, it is much stranger than that. Inside the tube was a stencil that contained all the characters the device could display. A deflection coil would move an electron beam to light up a particular character. Then another coil would deflect the patterned electron beam to the desired space on the screen. In some cases, the entire set of stencils would get the beam and the first deflection coil would pick which character made it through an aperture. Either way, the tube was not just a display, but a character generator.

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Another New Old Computer on an FPGA

How would you sell a computer to a potential buyer? Fast? Reliable? Great graphics and sound? In 1956, you might point out that it was somewhat smaller than a desk. After all, in those days what people thought of as computers were giant behemoths. Thanks to modern FPGAs, you can now have a replica of a 1956 computer — the LGP-30 — that is significantly smaller than a desk. The LittleGP-30 is the brainchild of [Jürgen Müller].

The original also weighed about 740 pounds, or a shade under 336 kg, so the FPGA version wins on mass, as well. The LGP-30 owed its relative svelte footprint to the fact that it only used 113 tubes and of those, only 24 tubes were in the CPU. This was possible, because, like many early computers, the CPU worked on one bit at a time. While a modern computer will add a word all at once, this computer — even the FPGA version — add each operand one bit at a time.

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