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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MiSTer Upgrades Vintage Computer Recreations

The MiST project provides an FPGA-based platform for recreating vintage computers. We recently saw an upgraded board — MiSTer — with a similar goal but with increased capability. You can see a video of the board acting like an Apple ][ playing Pac Man, below.

The board isn’t emulating the target computer. Rather, it uses an FPGA to host a hardware implementation of the target. There are cores for Apple, Atari, Commodore, Coleco, Sega, Sinclair and many other computers. There are also many arcade game cores for games like Defender, Galaga, and Frogger.

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Vintage Computer Festival Switzerland This Weekend

This weekend marks the Vintage Computer Festival Europe – Switzerland, a two-day extravaganza of vintage hardware held in Zurich, Switzerland.

Of interest for this VCF will be an LGP-30 replica (a computer without RAM or ROM released in 1956), an IBM System/360 front panel, lots of blinkenlights, Swiss computers, and [Oscarv], creator of the very successful PiDP-8/I project on Hackaday.io, will be there with his minified PiDP-11/70. If you don’t have one of [Oscar]’s PiDP8 machines sitting on your desk yet, don’t worry — the 11/70 is the one you really want. It is beautiful.

As you would expect from a Vintage Computer Festival, all the standards will be there. The flea market is open, soldering stations are present, talks will be held, and very old and very rare hardware will be blinking. From our experience with Vintage Computer Festivals, Europe does it right. Last year’s festival in Munich was a blast, and this year’s celebration in Zurich looks like it will be as well.

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, AZERTY

In the US, we don’t hear much about computing from beyond the Anglosphere. We’ve seen some home computer clones from behind the iron curtain, but getting any information about them is hard. If you find an old keyboard with a QWERTZ layout, or even a few Cyrillic characters, in the States, it’s a rarity. To date, the only French computer on Hackaday is an old Minitel dumb terminal. To help rectify this, [Jeremie Marsin], [Thierry Mazzoleni], and [Jean Paul Mari] from Quebec brought the best of the French computing revolution of the 1980s along to this year’s Vintage Computer Festival East

The American-designed French Victor

The evolution of the reigning champion of this exhibit begins with the Micronique Victor Lambda, a licensed copy of a purely American computer, the Interact Home Computer System. This computer featured a 2 MHz 8080A, 8 or 16 kB of RAM, and was quickly discontinued. The French company Micronique quickly bought the original designs and remarketed the computer in France.

In a few short years, Micronique took this design and turned it into the Hector. This machine featured a 5 MHz Z80, 48 kB of RAM, high resolution graphics (243×231 at four colors) and included BASIC and Forth interpreters.

The Victor and Hector were the best home computers at the time, but for every Commodore or Apple, you need a ZX Spectrum. France’s version of this tiny computer with a terrible keyboard was the Matra Alice 32, a computer with a 1 MHz 6803, 16kB of Ram, and a real 80×25 text mode. The Alice is heavily based on the American TRS-80 MC-10, with a SCART connector and an AZERTY keyboard.

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The weirdest computer [Jeremie], [Thierry], and [Jean Paul] brought out? That would be the Excelvision EXL100. The 1980s, for better or worse, were the times of the Z80 and 6502. The EXL100 was running something completely different. This home computer used a TMS7020 CPU from Texas Instruments, a speech synthesizer, and a wireless keyboard. Very strange for the time and relatively inexpensive; in 1984 this computer cost only ₣3190, or about $550 USD.

TMS

[Jeremie], [Thierry], and [Jean Paul] had an exhibit that presented the best the Francosphere had to offer to the computing world in the 80s and 90s. We haven’t seen enough early computers from outside the US, so we’re happy to have met these guys at the 11th annual Vintage Computer Festival East.

Retro TO-3 Switching Voltage Regulator

Restoring old gear often means replacing unavailable parts with modern equivalents. [Alex Eisenhut] needed to replace some old TO-3 voltage regulators and decided to make an authentic-looking switching power supply replacement. These three pin metal cans were very common, especially the LM340 5V regulator which was, of course, a linear regulator. Today, you are more likely to see a 7805 in a TO-220 case or something surface mount for a comparable linear regulator.

As you might expect, the board uses surface mount components. [Alex] used Mill Max machine pins to match the original regulator footprint and calls the regulator Ton3y. He plans to cover it up with a 3D printed lid, but it seems a shame to hide the fine PCB work.

In the pictures, you can see that the machine pins are a tight fit. [Alex] used a hammer to lightly tap them into place. Of course, the original TO-3 regulators were linear and would generate a lot of heat. The Ton3y, as you’d expect from a switching power supply, runs cool (according to the scientific measurement made with [Alex]’s pinky finger) and surely has a wider input voltage range and more output current capacity.

We’ve seen replacement switching regulators before, but this one is really a work of art.

This Little Amiga Still Runs School District’s HVAC

It’s the rare tech worker that manages a decade in any one job these days – employee loyalty is just so 1980s. But when you started your career in that fabled age, some of the cultural values might have rubbed off on you. Apparently that’s the case for an Amiga 2000 that’s been on the job since the late ’80s, keeping the heat and AC running at Grand Rapids Public Schools (YouTube video link.)

The local news story is predictably short on details and pushes the editorial edge into breathless indignation that taxpayer dollars have somehow been misspent. We just don’t see it that way. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is somewhat anathema to the hacker ethos. After all, there’s no better time to “fix” something than when it’s working properly and you can tell if you’ve done something wrong. But keeping an important system running with duct tape and wire ties is also part of the hacker way, so we applaud [Tim Hopkins] and his colleagues at the GRPS Facilities and Operations Department for their efforts to protect the public purse. And a round of applause is also due not only to the Amiga design team, who produced a machine that can run for nearly three decades, but also to Johnson Controls, whose equipment – apparently a wide area radio modem linking the HVAC systems in the district’s buildings – is being run by The Little Amiga That Could. Sounds like they built stuff to last way back when.

So when this machine is finally retired, here’s hoping they give it a good sendoff. Perhaps we’ll see it with some other Amigas at some future Vintage Computer Festival. Or maybe it’ll be one of those active retirees and start a career in the music industry.

[Thanks Thinkerer!]

VCF East X: The Not Trashy Eighty

The lowly TRS-80 doesn’t get much love in most circles; it’s constantly overshadowed by the popularity of the Apple II or computers that had graphics that weren’t terrible. For [Mike Loewen]’s VCF exhibit, he’s turning his TRS-80 into something good with SD card disk drives and custom graphics adapters.

The -80 in question is a Model 4, the fancy all-in-one version that could run CP/M. The disk drives in this computer were replaced with half-height 5 1/4″ drives, the 200ns RAM was replaced with 100ns RAM and modified to get rid of the wait states, and a hard drive is emulated on a SD card adapter thanks to an add-on from [Ian Mavric].

[Ian] is somewhat prolific in the world of TRS-80s; he reverse engineered the original hi-res graphics board and reimplemented it with video RAM chips of a more modern vintage.

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