There was certainly no shortage of unique computers on display at the 2021 Vintage Computer Festival East; that’s sort of the point. But even with the InfoAge Science and History Museum packed to the rafters with weird and wonderful computing devices stretching back to the very beginning of the digital age, Alastair Hewitt’s Novasaur was still something of an oddity.
In fact, unless you knew what it was ahead of time, you might not even recognize it as a computer. Certainly not a contemporary one, anyway. There’s nothing inside its Polycase ZN-40 enclosure that looks like a modern CPU, a bank of RAM, or a storage device. Those experienced with vintage machines would likely recognize the tight rows of Advanced Schottky TTL chips as the makings of some sort of computer that predates the 8-bit microprocessor, but its single 200 mm x 125 mm (8 in x 5 in) board seems far too small when compared to the 1970s machines that would have utilized such technology. So what is it?
Inspired by projects such as the Gigatron, Alastair describes the Novasaur as a “full-featured personal computer” built using pre-1980 components. In his design, 22 individual ICs stand in for the computer’s CPU, and another 12 are responsible for a graphics subsystem that can push text and bitmapped images out over VGA at up to 416 x 240. It has 512 K RAM, 256 K ROM, and is able to emulate the Intel 8080 fast enough to run CP/M and even play some early 80s PC games.
[Carsten] spent over a year developing a small CPU system, implementing his own minimalist instruction set entirely in TTL logic. The system uses a serial terminal interface for all I/O, hence the term UART in the title. [Carsten] began building this computer on multiple breadboards, which quickly got out of hand.
He moved the design over to a PCB, but he was still restless. This latest revision replaces EEPROM with cheaper and easier to use CMOS Flash chips, and the OS gains a small file system manager. As he says in the video, his enemy is feature creep.
In addition to designing this CPU project, [Carsten] built an assembler and wrote a substantial operating system and various demo programs and games. He not only learned KiCAD to make this board, but also taught himself to use an auto-router. The KiCAD design, Gerbers, and BOM are all provided in his repository above. ROM images and source code are provided, as well as a Windows cross-assembler. But wait – there’s more. He also wrote a cycle exact emulator of the CPU, which, as he rightfully brags, comes in at under 250 lines of C++ code. This whole project is an amazing undertaking and represents a lot of good work. We hope he will eventually release the assembler project as well, in case others want to take on the challenge of building it to run under Linux or MacOS. Despite this, the documentation of the Minimal UART Computer is excellent.
[Carsten] claims the project has finally passed the finish line of his design requirements, but we wonder, will he really stop here? Do check out his YouTube channel for further informative videos. And thanks to [Bruce] for sending in the tip.
Making a CPU or indeed a whole computer system from scratch using discrete logic chips is by no means an unusual project, but it’s still one that requires quite a lot of technical ability and understanding of how computers work. Similarly, writing a UNIX-like operating system from scratch is something that’s been done more than once, but which definitely puts the author in an exclusive breed. Creating a CPU and computer system from discrete logic and then writing a UNIX-like OS for it? That’s definitely something new, but here’s [RobotMan2412] with both CPU and operating system to prove it!
The GR8CPU as he calls it is an 8-bit design with a 16-bit address space, making it equivalent to a typical mid-to-late 1970s 8-bit chip. He’s on revision 3 of the processor, and even makes the bold suggestion that it might be the most complex breadboard CPU ever made. That’s impressive enough, but to add a UNIX-like operating system makes it special.
While he has a real GR8CPU, it appears he’s also written an emulator with access to a disk filesystem, and it’s on this that he shows us the OS running. Don’t expect an all-singing all-dancing desktop OS here, instead it’s a kernel and very basic command line that’s just about able to run a Hello World. The kernel is hand-coded in assembler and is about 5 kB in size.
If you always wished you could get closer to the hardware with the 6502 in your classic microcomputer you’re in luck, because [Drass] has created a beautiful implementation of a 6502 using TTL logic chips. What makes it special is that it sits on a very neat set of PCBs, and due to its use of 74AC series logic it can run at much higher speeds than the original. A 20 MHz 6502 would have been revolutionary in the mid-1970s.
Through a flying ribbon cable, it can plug directly into the 6502 socket on classic microcomputers, and the website shows it running a variety of software on a Commodore VIC20. There is also a custom SBC as part of the suite, so no need for a classic micro if you want to put the CPU through its paces. The boards are not quite perfect, the website has a picture of some very neat reworking where it appears that a bus has been applied to a chip in reverse, but it certainly has the feel of a professional design about it.
In 1975, [D. L. Slotnick], CS professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign faced a problem: meteorologists were collecting a lot more data than current weather simulations could handle. [Slotnick]’s solution was to build a faster computer to run these atmosphere circulation simulations. The only problem was the computer needed to be built quickly and cheaply, so that meant using off-the-shelf hardware which in 1975 meant TTL logic chips. [Ivan] found the technical report for this project (a massive PDF, you have been warned), and we’re in awe of the scale of this new computer.
One requirement of this computer was to roughly 100 times the computing ability of the IBM 360/95 at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies devoted to the same atmospheric computation tasks. In addition, the computer needed to be programmable in the “high-level” FORTRAN-like language that was used for this atmospheric research.
The result – not to overlook the amazing amount of work that went into the design of this machine – was a computer built out of 210,000 individual logic chips at a total cost of $2.7 Million dollars, or about $10 Million in 2012 dollars. The power consumption of this computer would be crazy – about 90 kilowatts, or enough to power two dozen American houses.
We couldn’t find much information if this computer was actually built, but all the work is right there in the report, ready for any properly funded agency to build an amazingly powerful computer out of logic chips.
When [GG] was 12 years old, he was introduced to BugBooks, the wonderful ‘introduction to digital design’ books from the early 1970s. It has always been a dream of [GG] to build the TTL computer featured in the BugBooks, and now that he has the necessary time and money available to him, the Apollo181 has become a reality.
[GG]’s computer is built around a 74181 ALU, an exceptionally old-school chip that provides the core of a computer in a neat 24-pin chip. With a 256-byte RAM and a few additional logic chips, [GG]’s computer is an exceptional piece of engineering able to perform 625,000 instructions per second when clocked at 2.5 MHz.
This isn’t [GG]’s first homebrew computer build; last year we saw his incredible Z80 minicomputer. Now we can’t wait to see what’s on tap for next year. After the break, you can check out [GG] loading in operands and operators into his computer and letting the Apollo181 churn away on its program.