Recreating Retrocomputers Hack Chat

Face it -- nobody knew how this stuff worked

Wednesday, August 12, 2020 12:00 pm PDT Local time zone:
Hack Chat
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Mike Gardi will host the Hack Chat on Wednesday, August 12, 2020 at noon Pacific Time.

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For as complex a task as building the first commercial computers was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, building the computer industry was probably even harder. Sure, engineers were already getting on board with designing in silicon and germanium instead of glass and tungsten, and all digital circuits are really just abstractions of analog designs most of them were already familiar with. But what about all the other people who would need to get up to speed on the workings of digital computers? To make computers make money, companies would need legions of installers, operators, programmers, marketers, and salespeople, and all of them would need training.

And so early computer companies put a lot of effort into building training devices to get people up to speed. These trainers helped teach everything from basic logic circuits and Boolean relationships to simple programming concepts, and each of them contributed in their own way to developing the computer industry that we know today.

Mike Gardi has a unique hobby: among other things, he builds faithful replicas of some of the nicer examples of these lost bits of computing history. His reproduction of Claude Shannon's Minivac 601 trainer is a great example of the art, as is the DEC H-500 Computer Lab build he's currently working on. Along the way he's explored some side alleys on the road to our computerized world, like Dr. Nim and the paperclip computer. All his builds are lovingly created from 3D-prints and really capture the essence of the toys and tools of the time.

Join us as we take a trip inside this niche realm of retrocomputing and find out why Mike finds it fascinating enough to devote the time it obviously takes to build such exacting replicas. We'll talk about what projects he's got going on right now, what he has planned for the future, and maybe even dive into some of his secrets for such great looking 3D prints.

  • Hack Chat Transcript, Part 1

    Dan Maloney08/12/2020 at 20:06 0 comments

    OK, here we are at the top of the hour with a lot of new virtual faces. I'm Dan, I'll be your mod today. Let's welcome Mike Gardi to the Hack Chat today, to talk about the wonderful pieces of early computer history he recreates from scratch. Hi Mike!

    Ahron Wayne12:01 PM
    Welcome to mike!

    Michael Möller12:01 PM

    For context:

    Hackaday Dan Maloney

    A Faithful Replica Of An Early Computer Trainer

    Turn the clock back six decades or so and imagine you're in the nascent computer business. You know your product has immense value, but only to a limited customer base with the means to afford such devices and the ability to understand them and put them to use.

    Read this on Hackaday

    Michael Gardi12:01 PM
    Hello Everyone, I'm so glad to be here today. I hope you don't mind but I have a couple of friends here with me today. See above.

    Michael Gardi12:02 PM
    A little bit about me...

    I'm married with two adult children (that I still think of as kids). Attended the University of Waterloo in the Computer Science program (Class of '82) and have been living in the Waterloo area (about an hour from Toronto) since graduation.

    I was in software development my whole career. In the early days I may have done some Cobol, Fortran, and Pascal programming, but mostly I was a C and Java developer (somehow never got involved in C++ work). I retired in April of 2019.

    I only started thinking about myself as a "maker" in the past couple of years. I joined the kwartzlab makerspace ( last year. I'm having a great time learning new skills and making new friends.

    Michael Gardi12:02 PM
    A caveat...

    I'm not a very fast typist. I went to an underfunded Catholic high school, so when my public school buddies were getting a couple of solid years of typing classes I was learning to conjugate verbs in Latin. Sigh. At any rate I have tried to anticipate some of your questions and prepared a few answers.

    So don't be fooled if it looks like I'm typing really fast.

    Linker300012:03 PM
    Everyone switch to 110bps stat!

    ishotjr12:03 PM
    I took Latin too, it's super useful!

    ishotjr12:03 PM
    I guess I use typing more often though :-/

    Jason Cho12:03 PM

    Don't worry, our server will probably take care of that for us.

    Ahron Wayne12:04 PM
    I am very lucky that I was born at a time where I never had to learn how to properly write. ch@sp3ak 4 the win

    carlclaunch5112:04 PM
    Hi Michael. I have a Minivac 601 but have always been looking for the capacitor add on kit and instruction booklet. Have you encountered this or have any pointers?

    ishotjr12:04 PM
    I had to learn to type at 3 in order to LOAD games!

    ishotjr12:05 PM
    I'm looking at the blog post linked above, but is there a project page to follow progress too?

    ishotjr12:05 PM
    or, I guess it's

    Michael Gardi12:05 PM
    @carlclaunch51 Sorry I've had no luck tracking down that information.

    Michael Gardi12:06 PM
    I wasn't blogging to Hachaday when I did the Minivac.

    carlclaunch5112:06 PM
    @Michael Gardi thats one of the challenges of recreating antique tech - lots of data lots to the mists of sands

    Ken Berkun12:06 PM
    I took Latin and typing at the same time in summer school, 5th grade. Let's just say that as much as I understand the value of Latin, typing has been more useful.

    Javier Piay Pombo joined the room.12:07 PM

    ishotjr12:07 PM
    I love this:

    > the Minivac 601 was ostensibly a toy in the vein of the “100-in-1” electronics kits that would appear later.

    That is exactly what I thought of on first glance!

    Mike, what got you started on recreating these artifacts? Did you actually encounter any of these in your early career? Seems like you came online well after these trainers were in their heyday.

    p.s. joined the room.12:09 PM

    ishotjr12:09 PM
    so the first question that occurred to me is what MCU/processor...

    Read more »

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