Gigatron Hack Chat

No microprocessor, no problem

Wednesday, June 24, 2020 12:00 pm PDT Local time zone:
Hack Chat
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Walter Belgers will host the Hack Chat on Wednesday, June 24, 2020 at noon Pacific Time.

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Join Hack ChatThere was a time when if you wanted a computer, you had to build it. And not by ordering parts from Amazon and plugging everything together in a case -- you had to buy chips, solder or wire-wrap everything, and tinker endlessly. The process was slow, painful, and expensive, but in the end, you had a completely unique machine that you knew inside out because you put every bit of it together.

In some ways, it's good that those days are gone. Being able to throw a cheap, standardized commodity PC at a problem is incredibly powerful, but that machine will have all the charm of a rubber doorstop and no soul at all. Luckily for those looking to get back a little of the early days of the computer revolution or those that missed them entirely, there are alternatives like the Gigatron. Billed as a "minimalistic retro computer," the Gigatron is a kit that takes the builder back even further in time than the early computer revolution since it lacks a microprocessor. All the logic of the 8-bit computer is built up from discrete 7400-series TTL chips.

The Gigatron is the brainchild of Marcel van Kervinck and Walter Belgers. Tragically, Marcel recently passed away, but Walter is carrying the Gigatron torch forward and leading a thriving community of TTL-computer aficionados as they extend and enhance what their little home-built machines can do. Walter will stop by the Hack Chat to talk all things Gigatron, and answer your questions about how this improbably popular machine came to be.

  • Hack Chat Transcript, Part 2

    Dan Maloney06/24/2020 at 20:13 0 comments

    Walter12:58 PM
    @brianpagephotog Different people like it for different reasons. Some just like to solder something interesting. Others like the fact that it teaches you are computer technology. Others are just amazed that less than 1000 transistors can do pacman

    Walter12:58 PM

    Paul Hernaus12:59 PM
    @Andy Pugh Actually I was thinking about CRT memory as soon as LEDs as memory was suggested.

    Walter12:59 PM
    And some people like it for retro-reasons.

    @Andy Pugh - I'd imagine there would need to be some hysteresis in the CdS photocell output. Just spitballing, though.

    monsonite12:59 PM
    Brian - I think the appeal may be more biassed to the demographic that grew up on early 8-bit machines and worked with TTL. My interests lie in that camp - but also the minimalist efficient design appeals to me

    Andy Pugh12:59 PM
    How many transistors were in Pacman? I saw inside a Space Invader as a kid (when I was playing with the ZX80) and that appeared to be all discete logic.

    Steve Silverman1:00 PM
    I began my career designing things using RTL, DTL, and then TTL logic chips with no more than 16 pins. The Gigatron jumped right off the screen when I saw it!

    Walter1:01 PM
    @Andy Pugh no idea but this had a microprocessor, so it's definately a lot more than the Gigatron

    Walter1:01 PM
    The Z80 alone has 8500

    Andy Pugh1:02 PM
    I suspect this audience is made up of a demographic who will nod sagely while reading that "lids don't understand computers" rant from a few years ago.

    Wow, so that was a fast hour! Feel free to keep the conversation going, but if Walter needs to wrap it up, we should let him. I want to sincerely thank Walter for being on with us today, and to wish him the best going forward. I think this was a fitting tribute to Marcel and his vision for Gigatron.

    Andy Pugh1:02 PM
    (And that would be "kids don't....)

    Walter1:02 PM
    Yes, there's also quite a few people (more than I expected) that had in the recent (or not-so recent past) designed and built computers/cpu's themselves.

    Walter1:03 PM
    @Dan Maloney time flies :) I'll be around for a few more minutes. Thank you all for your interest!

    monsonite1:04 PM
    I think Hackaday might consider runnning an annual competition - similar to the 1024 bytes of coding challenge - the MvK Memorial Award for the best design using fewer than 1024 gates.

    Absolutely! I usually pull a transcript right away, but I'll wait a few to get all the details. Thanks so much to everyone! Remember next week, we'll be talking about LED art:


    LED Art Hack Chat

    Aaron Oppenheimer will host the Hack Chat on Wednesday, July 1, 2020 at noon Pacific Time. Time zones got you down? Here's a handy time converter! From the first time humans crawled into a cave with a bit of charcoal to sketch scenes from the world around them, artists have been searching for new media and new ways to express themselves.

    Read this on Hackaday

    @monsonite - That's a great idea. I'll bring it up with the editors. Thanks!

    Walter1:05 PM
    Cool :-)

    pbierhoff1:06 PM
    I think Marcel deserves a lasting tribute. He was truly gifted

    monsonite1:06 PM
    Thanks Dan - and of couse Walter for this fascinaing insight.

    pbierhoff1:06 PM
    Thanks @Walter !

    Boian Mitov1:06 PM
    Thank you @Dan Maloney and @Walter :-)

    Walter1:07 PM
    Anything else people would like to know about the kit, the process around it, past, present, future, ..?

    How many of the original kits do you have left?

    monsonite1:08 PM
    Walter - put a shout out for the Forum - we always need new input

    With the wooden case

    Walter1:08 PM
    There are no more kits

    Walter1:08 PM
    And no more will be made by me

    pbierhoff1:08 PM
    Walter's living room is finally gigatron-free

    Walter1:09 PM
    Haha not quite.. I have a few myself, including now the 15Mhz one

    I really enjoyed that un-unboxing video:


    You guys put a lot of care into these kits


    Read more »

  • Hack Chat Transcript, Part 1

    Dan Maloney06/24/2020 at 20:12 0 comments

    Welcome everyone, time for the Gigatron Hack Chat. I'm Dan Maloney, I'll be the moderator today. I want to welcome Walter Belgers to the chat today to talk all about the Gigatron.

    Walter, thanks for coming on in what must be a difficult time. We were all so sad to hear about Marcel, and you have our condolences.

    Walter12:01 PM
    Thank you Dan. Yes, his passing is very sad indeed.

    How did you two end up working on Gigatron together?

    Walter12:02 PM
    I have known Marcel for over 20 years already

    MrMaxP joined  the room.12:02 PM

    SimonAllen12:03 PM
    What is on the menu for tonight?

    Walter12:03 PM
    He was working in the semiconductor industry and had lived for some years in Taiwan but returned to the Netherlands again

    @SimonAllen - Gigatron:

    Walter12:03 PM
    He was always doing interesting side projects, such as with computer chess, making weather balloons to reach space and more.

    Walter12:04 PM
    After he had bought a bunch of TTL chips and a book about what you could do with them, he thought about starting an interesting electronics project, but he wanted to do it together with somebody.

    Steve Silverman joined  the room.12:04 PM

    Walter12:05 PM
    Actually, another friend that also was involved on some of the other projects was involved in the beginning, but he no longer had the time, and Marcel asked me. I have had an interest in electronics all my life (having soldered since age 8).

    SimonAllen12:05 PM
    @Dan Maloney . Thanks

    Walter12:06 PM
    And to be honest: Marcel was a really knowledgeable and enthousiastic person, and I thought that whatever the outcome would be, I would enjoy "finding out stuff" with Marcel.

    Walter12:06 PM
    When he asked me, he and the other friend had already started, so I was not involved in the earliest prototyping work. My contributions started with the kit version of the Gigatron.

    That's the basis for some of the best projects, and partnerships.

    monsonite joined  the room.12:07 PM

    Walter12:08 PM
    Yes I really enjoyed working together, and our knowledge did overlap on some points, but on others we were really able to push each other.

    Walter12:08 PM
    Unfortunately programming is not my biggest hobby, so Marcel did all of that (and I could never have done it as well as he did).

    Were you surprised by the community that sprung up around the Gigatron?

    Walter12:10 PM
    Surprised is not the word.. we were thankful and overjoyed :)

    Steve Silverman12:11 PM
    How many kits have been shipped?

    Walter12:11 PM
    We had some discussions very early on with other kit builders. Building a kit is a whole different game than building a one-off. And I remember one of the things we were told is that you should do this because you get to interact with all sorts of nice and interesting people.

    Walter12:12 PM
    And when that happened, we were really happy. As I am now seeing many of them in this chat :-)

    Walter12:12 PM
    @Steve Silverman we sold just over 1000 kits

    monsonite12:12 PM
    Walter may I say sorry for the great loss - Marcel was always willing to help anyone with their Gigatron ideas or issues

    pbierhoff12:12 PM
    What will happen with some of the work Marcel had started, such as the I/O expansion? Has that been open-sourced too?

    Walter12:13 PM
    @monsonite yes Marcel always wanted to understand every little detail himself, and if others were interested to learn things, he'd be happy to help. As am I. You could say we are old-skool hackers

    Walter12:14 PM
    @pbierhoff the I/O expansion was work in progress. all the software and the schematics can be found on the forum. it's needs a bit of work to be really useful, but it would be great if the Gigatron were to be able to boot games from SDCARD in the future. It's not really in-line with the "retro" design goal, but makes life much easier

    Paul Hernaus12:15 PM
    Who came up with the name Gigatron and why?

    Walter12:15 PM
    @Paul Hernaus the both of us wrote down possible names, and we gave points to all of the names....

    Read more »

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Courtney wrote 06/23/2020 at 07:58 point

I truly regret that Marcel has passed. All who knew him have my deepest, heartfelt condolences.

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