Retro Computing

Computers, tablets, smart phones, etc. are nearly ubiquitous today and it is hard for many to imagine the early days with computers offering nothing more than a few front panel switches and some LEDs. Adding a few numbers together and being able to see the results by looking at the contents of a few memory locations was rewarding “back in the old days”.

There was a period where it seemed like many vintage systems had emulators that would run on the PC so you could relive those memories. And, of course, some of the older hardware is still around and has been restored to working order. But one doesn’t really have the same excitement and the other can be expensive and time consuming.

So in the last few years, retro computing has emerged…

Retro computing uses modern hardware and software to recreate vintage systems.

My first experience was with the 1802 microprocessor based Membership Card which is similar to the COSMAC Elf (one of the early “affordable” computers) but fits in an Altoids tin. It makes use of an actual 1802 chip and has switches and LEDs along with a serial port. Mine is running with 32 kilobytes of RAM and 32 kilobytes of ROM. (The ROM has the serial drivers, a machine language monitor, and integer basic.)

That was purchased on an impulse, but then I came across the P112 Z80 system which can run a derivative of CP/M.

The Dodo is a 6502 based hand-held “game system” that includes an online development environment.

And then there was the kickstarter campaign for the ZX Spectrum Next (due out in January 2018) and the efforts of the team working on the Mega65 (the realization of Commodore’s successor to the C64, the C65 which never made it beyond prototypes).

These later two make use of field programmable gate array logic (FPGAs) to implement many of the features including the video and the sound. A gentleman named Grant Searle has a website for those interested in home brewing a simple and cheap FPGA based computer that can run a Z80, 6809, or 6502. (The USB programming interface for the FPGA he uses runs between $15 and $25, but the FPGA card itself is around $20 on Amazon.)

Tinkering with these projects has been fun, but the tone of some of what I’ve read about the ZX Spectrum Next resonated.

A lot of people from the UK who went on to careers in engineering, computer science, and related fields credit the original ZX Spectrum and the BBC Micro with their start down that path. Three decades later, they are seeing the number of people in those fields taper off.

We need more young people interested and pursuing careers in the area of science, technology, engineering, and math. (Referred to as STEM for short.) The Raspberry Pi team has realized that and formed “coding clubs”.

This is great, but I would offer a “call to action…”

Except for a few highly motivated members, these clubs can offer only a limited glimpse into the world of STEM if those of us involved in the field do not make the effort to become involved.

There is another aspect for me personally–I worry that the chances for exposure to STEM related activities is lower for those who parents struggle paycheck to paycheck or who are in foster homes. If each of us were able to help one young person move past the limitations of their circumstances and towards a career in STEM, the results would be rewarding from so many different aspects.

I’ll explore more ideas along these lines in the future, but for now consider taking a look at the retro computer field with an eye towards both having fun and figuring out how to involve others so they can also share in that fun.



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