The Gigatron TTL microcomputer is an exercise in alternative history. What if, by some bizarre anomaly of invention and technology, the 1970s was not the age of the microprocessor? What if we could have had fast, high density ROM and RAM in the late ’70s, but the ability to put a microprocessor in silicon was beyond our comprehension? Obviously we would figure out a way to compute with this, and the Gigatron is the answer. It’s a computer from that era that’s designed with a CPU that’s entirely made of microcode.
While the Gigatron is a popular product in the world of weird electronics kits, the creator, [Marcel van Kervinck], is going beyond what anyone thought possible. Now the Gigatron is emulating a 6502 processor, the same CPU found in the Apple II and almost every other retrocomputer that isn’t running a Z80.
There’s a thread over on the Gigatron forums for this. Although it’s still very early in development, the Gigatron can now run 6502 machine code, and in doing so the Gigatron is now the only dual-core computer without a CPU. All of the addressing modes have been implemented, along with half of the instructions and most of the status flags. All of this interacts with the Gigatron’s existing video subsystem, and all code can switch in between the Gigatron’s virtual CPU and 6502 code with just a few instructions.
This opens the door to a wide variety of software that’s already written. MicroChess is possible, as is MS Basic. This is great; the biggest downside of the Gigatron is that there was no existing code for the machine when it was first designed. That changed when the Gigatron got a C compiler, but now somehow we’ve got a logic chip implementation of a 6502 in far fewer chips than are found in an Apple II. It’s not fast ( about 1/8th the speed of a 1 MHz 6502), but in the video below you can see a munching squares demo.
Continue reading “Emulating A 6502 In ROM”
For whatever reason, the Video Graphics Array standard seems to attract a lot of hardware hacks. Most of them tend to center around tricking a microcontroller into generating the signals needed to send images to a VGA monitor. We love those hacks, but this one takes a different tack – a microcontroller-free VGA display that uses only simple logic chips and EEPROMs.
When we first spied this project, [PH4Nz] had not yet shared his schematics and code, but has since posted everything on GitHub. His original description was enough to whet our appetite, though. He starts with a 27.175-MHz clock and divides that by 4 with a 74HCT163, which has the effect of expanding the 160×240 pixels image stored in one of the EEPROMs to 640×480. Two 8-bit counters keep track of horizontal and vertical positions, while the other EEPROM takes care of generating the Hsync and Vsync signals. It’s all quite hackish, but it works. [PH4Nz] tells us that the whole thing is in support of a larger project: an 8-bit computer made from logic chips. We’re looking forward to seeing that one too.
This isn’t the first microcontroller-less VGA project we’ve seen, of course. Here’s a similar one also based on EEPROMs, and one with TTL logic chips. And we still love VGA on a microcontroller such as the ESP32; after all, there’s more than one way to hack.
Thanks to [John U] for the tip.
We’ll all be familiar with Tic-Tac-Toe, or Noughts and Crosses, a childhood pencil-and-paper diversion which has formed the basis of many a coding exercise. It’s an easy enough task to implement in software, but how many of us have seen it done in hardware alone? That’s just what [Warren Toomey] has done using TTL chips, and his method makes for a surprisingly simple circuit.
At its heart is an 8 kB ROM that contains precomputed move sequences that are selected via an address composed of the game states for both player and machine. A series of flip-flops control and buttons to make the board, and a 555 provides a clock.
The technique of using a ROM to replace complex logic is a very powerful one that is facilitated by the low price of relatively large devices that would once have been unaffordable. We’ve seen the technique used elsewhere, including as an ALU in a TTL CPU, and even for an entire CPU in its own right.
You can see the result in operation in the video below the break, and should you wish to have a go for yourself all the relevant information can be found in a GitHub repository.
Continue reading “Tic-Tac-Toe, In TTL”
By now we should all be used to the astonishing variety of CPUs that have come our way created from discrete logic chips. We’ve seen everything from the familiar Von Neumann architectures to RISC and ever transport-triggered architecture done in 74 TTL derivatives, and fresh designs remain a popular project for many people with an interest in the inner workings of a computer.
[Warren Toomey]’s CSCvon8 is an interesting machine that implements an 8-bit computer with a 64-bit address space using only 17 chips, and without resorting to any tricks involving microcontrollers. It implements a fairly conventional Von Neumann architecture using TTL with a couple of tricks that use modern chips but could have been done in the same way in decades past. Instruction microcode is stored in an EEPROM, and the ALU is implemented in a very large EPROM that would probably once have been eye-wateringly expensive. This in particular removes many discrete TTL chips from the total count, in the absence of the classic 74181 single-chip part. To make it useful there is 32k each of RAM and EEPROM, and also a UART for serial access. The whole is brought together on a neat PCB, and there is a pile of demo code to get started with. Everything can be found in the project’s GitHub repository.
At the start of this article we mentioned a couple of unconventional TTL CPUs. The transport triggered one we featured in 2017, and the RISC one is the Gigatron which has appeared here more than once.
Interviewing to be a full-stack engineer is hard. It’s a lot harder than applying for a junior dev job where you’re asked to traverse a red-black tree on a whiteboard. For the full-stack job, they just give you a pile of 2N2222 transistors. (The first company wasn’t a great fit, and I eventually found a place that gave me some 2N2907s for the interview.) That said, there’s a certain challenge in seeing how far you can push some doped silicon. Case in point, [Alastair Hewitt]. He’s building a computer to browse the world wide web from the gate level up.
The goal of this project is to browse the web using only TTL logic. This presents problems that aren’t readily apparent at first glance. First up is being able to display text on a screen. The easiest way to do this now is to get a whole bunch of modern memories that are astonishingly fast for a 1970s vintage computer. This allows for VGA output, and yes, we’ve seen plenty of builds that output VGA using some big honkin’ memories. It turns out these RAM and ROM chips are a little better than the specs say they are, and this computer is overclocked from the very beginning.
A bigger problem is how to interface with a network. This is a problem for very old computers, but PPP still exists and if you have the software stack you can read something from a server over a serial connection. [Alistar] actually found the UART frequency was more important than the dot clock frequency of VGA, and the system clock must therefore be built around the serial port, not the display interface. This means the text mode interface is actually 96 columns instead of the usual 80 columns.
It’s very easy to say that you’re building a computer on a bread board. It’s another thing entirely to actually do it. This is actually a surprisingly well-though out sketch of a computer system that will, theoretically, be able to connect to the Internet. Of course, the reality of the situation is that this computer will be connecting over serial to a computer that’s connected to the Internet, but there’s no shame in that. You can check out the progress on the GitHub for this project.
Imagine you’re time-warped back to 1979 and tasked with constructing a personal computer. Could you do it? [RadicalBrad] thinks he can, and his 6502-based “Super VIC” build looks like it’s off to a great retrocomputing start.
Most emulations of old hardware these days go the FPGA route, and while we respect those projects immensely, there’s something to be said for applying a highly artificial constraint at the outset of a project. [RadicalBrad] chose to design like it’s 1979, and limited his ode to the machines of his youth to the 6502 CPU and logic and RAM chips available before 1980. The computer will support NTSC video output and 4-channels of 8-bit sound. No circuit boards will be used – everything is to be assembled on solderless breadboards. So far he has 48 (!) of them ganged together, which sounds like an enormous amount of space to work with, but he still found things crowded enough that some of the DIP bodies were trimmed a bit to fit more closely on the breadboards. The SRAM posed a problem, though, in that the 512K chips he wanted were not available in DIPs. To stay faithful to the constraints, he soldered the SOJ-packaged RAM chips into 40-PIN DIP headers – all 25 chips! We can’t recall a PC of the era sporting 12 megabytes of RAM, but no matter – it’s too cool not to love.
[RadicalBrad] has his work cut out for him, and this could take years to finish. We’re keen to follow his progress and can’t wait till it boots for the first time. Until it does, we’ll just gaze upon such discrete computing wonders as this almost-as-simple-as-possible computer, or even this delightfully noisy adder for a relay computer.
About a year ago when Hackaday and Tindie were at Maker Faire UK in Newcastle, we were shown an interesting retrocomputer by a member of York Hackspace. The Gigatron is a fully functional home computer of the type you might have owned in the early 1980s, but its special trick is that it does not contain a microprocessor. Instead of a 6502, Z80, or other integrated CPU it only has simple TTL chips, it doesn’t even contain the 74181 ALU-in-a-chip. You might thus expect it to have a PCB the size of a football pitch studded with countless chips, but it only occupies a modest footprint with 36 TTL chips, a RAM, and a ROM. Its RISC architecture provides the explanation, and its originator [Marcel van Kervinck] was recently good enough to point us to a video explaining its operation.
It was recorded at last year’s Hacker Hotel hacker camp in the Netherlands, and is delivered by the other half of the Gigatron team [Walter Belgers]. In it he provides a fascinating rundown of how a RISC computer works, and whether or not you have any interest in the Gigatron it is still worth a watch just for that. We hear about the design philosophy and the choice of a Harvard architecture, explained the difference between CISC and RISC, and we then settle down for a piece-by-piece disassembly of how the machine works. The format of an instruction is explained, then the detail of their 10-chip ALU.
The display differs from a typical home computer of the 1980s in that it has a full-color VGA output rather than the more usual NTSC or PAL. The hardware is simple enough as a set of 2-bit resistor DACs, but the tricks to leave enough processing time to run programs while also running the display are straight from the era. The sync interval is used to drive another DAC for audio, for example.
The result is one of those what-might-have-been moments, a glimpse into a world in which RISC architectures arrived at the consumer level years earlier than [Sophie Wilson]’s first ARM design for an Acorn Archimedes. There’s no reason that a machine like this one could not have been built in the late 1970s, but as we know the industry took an entirely different turn. It remains then the machine we wish we’d had in the early 1980s, but of course that doesn’t stop any of us having one now. You can buy a Gigatron of your very own, and once you’ve soldered all those through-hole chips you can run the example games or get to grips with some of the barest bare-metal RISC programming we’ve seen. We have to admit, we’re tempted!
Continue reading “How The Gigatron TTL Microcomputer Works”