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MCM/70 Reproduction

I am making a full sized MCM/70 reproduction, a Canadian personal computer from 1974.

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The MCM/70 computer was conceived, developed, and built in Canada in 1974. It was arguably one of the very first "personal" computers because it was portable, had a built-in keyboard, display, and support for the APL programming language, plus cassette storage. On the other hand, at a cost of $10,000, it was only really accessible to large corporations, the military, governments, and educational institutions.

As soon as I became aware of the MCM/70 I knew that I had to have one, and given the rarity of these machines that means making one. This project will chronicle my MCM/70 Reproduction journey.

Inspiration

I've been a vintage/retro computer enthusiast for a long time now and thought that I had a pretty good handle on all of the machines available in the 60s and 70s. So imagine my surprise when I saw the Kristina Panos February 23, 2022 blog post: INPUTS OF INTEREST: CANADIAN MCM/70 WAS KINDA LIKE THE FIRST CYBERDECK.

Wow. Mind blown. Here was a  beautiful Canadian built personal computer from the mid 70s that I had no idea existed. As I read Kristina's post I became more and more intrigued. The MCM/70 was conceived by professor Mers Kutt of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario and was manufactured in Kingston. The company he formed to build the devices, Micro Computer Machines (MCM), was located in Toronto, Ontario. I live in Waterloo, Ontario, so all of this took place in my own back yard so to speak.  Adding to that there was a ‘devastating power struggle’ between Kutt and some of MCM’s investors that in part ultimately lead to the demise of the company. Well I was hooked. Had to know more, had to have one.

Hardware

Based on the Intel 8008 microprocessor the MCM/70 had 32KB of ROM and up to 8KB of RAM. For output it used a Burroughs Self-Scan module, a 222 column by 7 row dot matrix display, capable of showing 32 5x7 dot characters at a time.  Because the MCM/70 supported APL out of the box, the keyboard was based on the IBM 2741 layout. Finally up to two cassette decks were used for offline storage and to implement virtual memory.

Software

The MCM/70's operating system consisted of two modules EASY (External Allocation SYstem), and AVS (A Virtual System) which were built into the ROM. These allowed the user to directly interact with the machine. In addition the ROM contained an MCM/APL interpreter. From cassette, APL application libraries could be loaded for finance, mathematics, statistics, education, and games. There was also printer and plotter support software. 

Research

Kristina's blog post was a good place to start learning about the MCM/70.  It's a great summary of the origin of the machine, what it was, and its ultimate fate. I would encourage anyone with an interest in the MCM/70 to start there as I did.

For a more in depth look, the blog post references the book Inventing the PC: the MCM/70 Story by Zbigniew Stachniak. I purchased the book and really enjoyed it. A lot of the book is about the history of the company Micro Computer Machines which I found fascinating. More importantly, towards my goal of making an MCM/70, the book talks a lot about the design of the machine and provides insights into what ultimately led to that design some of which were technical, some practical, and some political.

After doing a little more digging I discovered that The York University Computer Museum (YUCoM) has an MCM/70 on display. York University is only about 110 kilometers from where I live, about a hour and a half's drive away. Cool. I also learned that the YUCoM has developed a historically accurate software emulator for the MCM/70 and is offering it free to anyone who requests it. So naturally I requested it through an online contact form and who should answer that request, Zbigniew Stachniak the author of Inventing the PC: the MCM/70 Story who also happens to be the curator of YUCoM.  Small world.  I hope to visit the museum in the near future now that COVID protocols are being relaxed. 

I did some more in depth research into the MCM/70's display and keyboard as these would definitely be the "hard parts" to reproduce. I'll detail my findings in future posts, but I'll say for now that after that research I was convinced that the MCM/70 Reproduction project was feasible, and that I would be happy with the result. So let the fun begin.

  • York University Computer Museum Visit

    Michael Gardi05/11/2022 at 16:49 0 comments

    Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the York University Computer Museum (YUCoM). I was greeted by Zbigniew Stachniak (Ziggy), curator of the Museum and author of the book "Inventing the PC - The MCM/70 Story". The museum is about an hours drive from my home in Waterloo Ontario.

    As the above poster indicates the museum specializes in Canada's contribution to the computing field.

    The museum has a small selection of their large archive of Canadian computers on display. Since I was interested in the MCM/70 I first focused in on some of  the other MCM models that they had on display.

    From left to right: MCM/900,  MCM/800, and an MCM Power.

    There were a few other exabits that caught my eye.

    On the left is a computer based on the MIL 8008 microprocessor, a Canadian version of the Intel 8008. In the middle is a very early Volker-Craig terminal. VC terminals were manufactured in Waterloo and designed by a couple of University of Waterloo grads Michael C. Volker and Ronald G. Craig starting in 1973. They were very popular at the University of Waterloo when I was there (1977-1982). On the right is a Hyperion, an early portable computer thought to be the first portable IBM PC compatible. It was marketed by Infotech Cie of Ottawa.

    After a brief tour I got down to business taking a good look at the MCM/70 on display. 

    I took many photos as I would be modelling the MCM/70 case based on them. One surprise was that the side panels, which I thought to be made of wood, are actually injection molded. I would never have realized this had I not had access to the real thing.

    While I was taking my pictures Ziggy and I had a great talk about the machine; he is probably the world's leading expert on the MCM/70. I especially enjoyed our conversation about the emulator that he wrote for the MCM/70. Since the intent is to use the emulator for research purposes he spent a lot of time making sure that it worked precisely as the hardware did. Since he had a couple of MCM/70s available to him he was able to validate the emulator's faithfulness to the original.  We were also able to compare emulation techniques since I wrote an emulator for a Sol-20.  Nothing like spending an afternoon geeking out ;-)

    So now I have what I need to get going on the MCM/70 case. Ziggy has graciously offered to provide more information should I require it.  I foresee spending a lot of time working with Fusion 360 over the next couple of weeks. 

  • Update 2022-05-01

    Michael Gardi05/01/2022 at 23:50 2 comments

    The project is at a bit of a pause right now while I wait for stuff. Dave from osiweb.org  is currently out of  OSI replacement keyboard PCBs. He is having some manufactured but it could be a couple of weeks. I'm reluctant to do any work on the keycaps until the keyboard is done. I have not as yet been able to obtain measurements for the MCM/70 so I can't begin modelling the case. If anyone knows of an MCM/70 out there please let me know. 

    While I'm waiting I have been making a Sinclair ZX80 clone based on [Cees Meijer]’s excellent writeup (also see: A ZX80 WITH A PROPER CASE).

  • 32 Character Display Electronics Completed

    Michael Gardi04/18/2022 at 20:55 0 comments

    Based on the Broadcom HCMS-2972 parts and the display carrier board PCBs that I made, I have a working MCM/70 display.

    The carrier boards worked out great.  Just had to wire them together.

    With the display in hand, I was able to integrate it with the York University MCM/70 emulator. I used the Wiring Pi library to access the Raspberry Pi's GPIO pins. In order to make the library available for use I executed the following commands on the Pi with the emulator software installed.

    git clone https://github.com/WiringPi/WiringPi.git
    cd WiringPi
    ./build

     The library is referenced in the code through the WiringpPi header file.

    #include <wiringPi.h>

     Also when building the code the wiringPi  library needs to be referenced.

    gcc mcm.c -lGL -lglut -lwiringPi -o mcm

    When I'm a little further along I'll post the changes I made to the York University code.  The HCMS-2972s are pretty easy to work with. 

    Here is a short video of the display assembly in action.

    I had hoped to tackle the keyboard next but I will be a few weeks until I get the OSI keyboard PCBs. Hopefully I can get a start on the MCM/70 case.

  • Display Carrier Board

    Michael Gardi04/05/2022 at 18:33 0 comments

    I have received all four HCMS-2972s, so it was time to start thinking about how to organize them into a 32 x 1 character display. My original thought was to design a PCB to hold all four parts. Then I realized that JCLPCB is going to ship a minimum of five boards anyway, so I came up with a carrier board for a single HCMS-2972 that can be easily daisy chained together with others.

    Pretty simple. I'll use a couple of IC sockets a 14 pin and a 12 pin to hold the HCMS-2972s in place (these parts are like $60 a piece so I'm not taking any chances with them).

    Board files have been sent for manufacturing.

  • The Keyboard

    Michael Gardi04/03/2022 at 19:22 0 comments

    I knew that producing an authentic looking keyboard for this project would be a challenge in two parts. First getting the physical keyboard layout right with the MCM/70 keys. The second challenge will be to obtain a keycap set with the special APL symbols (legends). Here is an MCM/70 keyboard.

    Well I think I have the keyboard layout issue sorted.  After looking at many many keyboards online I found the following.

    This is a keyboard for Ohio Scientific (OSI) computers that were popular in the mid to late 70s.  It's a very close match layout wise to the MCM/70. One small difference is that the OSI spacebar is only 8U compared to the MCM/70's 9U size. Also the MCM/70 has an ISO style Return (rotated L shaped) key, but if you remove and ignore the OSI's Repeat and Break keys and replace the Return key with the ISO model it's a practically perfect replacement.

    So how does this help? Aren't OSI vintage keyboards just as hard to find as MCM/70 keyboards? Well yes and no. Yes originals are hard to find, but thanks to Dave from osiweb.org replacement keyboards are not. I used Dave's Sol-20 reproduction keyboard for my Sol-20 Reproduction and it worked out great.  If you check out Dave's Unified Retrocomputer Keyboard Project on GitHub you will see that he also offers keyboards for Apple I, Apple II/II+, Generic ADM/3A teletypes, and most importantly to me OSI computers. So I have ordered an OSI keyboard PCB and stabilizer, OSI keycaps, and an encoder. 

    As for the MCM/70 APL keycaps, well I'm still looking into that. Lots of options. More later.

  • The Display

    Michael Gardi04/01/2022 at 21:10 2 comments

    For output the MCM/70 used a Burroughs Self-Scan Model C4047 plasma display. These Self-Scan displays were an important stepping-stone technology between teletype terminals of the 1960s and the widespread use of CRTs from the mid-1970s on.

    The display was arranged as a 122 column by 7 row dot matrix.  An MCM/70 would use these dots to render 32 characters of 5x7 dots with two blank columns between each.  Now a single line of text with 32 characters doesn't sound like much, but considering that the Altair 8800 released that same year just had front panel blinkenlights out of the box, it was quite a step up.

    Here's the problem. These plasma displays are no longer manufactured. You can occasionally find one on eBay but they are pretty expensive. Even if I could source one, to tell you the truth the high voltages required for the plasma elements (250V) scare me a bit (even though I know the amperage is low).

    So I spent a lot of time looking for a suitable replacement and think I found one, the Broadcom HCMS-2972.

    Packaged as 8 5x7 dot matrix arrays these modules operate at a nice safe 5V and can be cascaded together side by side to create the 32 x 1 character display desired here. Furthermore the viewing area for the 32 characters measures 171.7 mm x 4.57 mm while the Self Scan viewing area is 181.61 mm x 4.98 mm.  So very very close. 

    There is one small drawback to using the HCMS-2972s. The Self-Scan displays form a full 222 x 7 dot matrix. When displaying characters however two columns between each character are turned "off". Four HCMS-2872s side by side are only 160 x 7 dots where there are physical gaps between the characters that happen to be about 2 columns wide. For normal use there will be no difference in the displays since the MCM/70 always keeps characters on a even 7 column boundaries. However when an MCM/70 is executing instructions that do not involve displaying outputs, it uses display memory to store temporary values.  Since the hardware is constantly updating the display from this memory, random looking patterns of dots will be displayed. In my implementation these "thinking" patterns of dots will have blank columns between where the characters are. I think I can live with this.

    I received a HCMS-2972 earlier this week and setup quick test using an Arduino Nano I had kicking around. Here is what it looks like fired up.

    I have 3 more HCMS-2972s on order now. 

  • The York University Computer Museum MCM/70E Emulator

    Michael Gardi04/01/2022 at 16:06 0 comments

    So thanks to the hard working folks at York University, I have a great head start with this project, a working MCM/70 Emulator.  Not just working, but because it is intended for research purposes, an emulator "with high historical accuracy". From the MCM/70E web page:

    In 2019, YUCoM offered its emulator of the MCM/70 as free software. The emulator is the result of an extensive study of the MCM/70 hardware and of a software recovery project that has preserved MCM software from approximately 100 digital MCM cassettes donated to the museum. It emulates the original MCM/70 hardware with 8Kbytes of RAM with high historical accuracy. In particular, the memory management as well as tape, keyboard, and display functionality are emulated accurately. The emulator operates under the original systems software and is using the original tape storage organization (reconstructed during the above mentioned software preservation project).


    There is a great document, the MCM/70E Guide, that accompanies the software that tells you how to install and run the emulator.

    MCM/70E is written in C and is available for Linux only at this time. It is delivered as source in a .tgz archive and must be compiled on the target machine. OpenGL and the GLUT utility toolkit are required for the emulator to compile.

    My intention is to run the emulator on a Raspberry Pi 4. Unfortunately due to supply shortages it does not look like I will be able to obtain one in the near future (or maybe even longer). So in the interim I dug a Raspberry Pi 2 Model B out of my parts box to give the emulator a try.

    I installed the latest Raspberry Pi OS (Version 11 (bullseye)) onto the Model B.  I then downloaded and exploded the MCM70E.tgz file that I obtained from York University creating a /MCM70E_v2.1_distr folder. From within that folder I executed the following commands:

    sudo apt-get install freeglut3-dev
    apt-get install libncurses-dev
    gcc mcm.c -lGL -lglut -o mcm

    Notice that in order to get the emulator to compile under Raspberry Pi OS I had to install the ncurses library in addition to the GLUT library. Then it's a simple matter of running the emulator.

    ./mcm

    The emulator runs great with one caveat. On my Raspberry Pi 2 it only runs at about 20% of the speed of an actual MCM/70. At this point I am not too worried about that. On a Raspberry Pi 4 the emulation will run faster. Also I believe that much of the speed loss is due to the overhead of running OpenGL for the emulator's UI. When my reproduction is done there will be no need for the UI or OpenGL so I expect much better performance. If I'm wrong it's a problem for future me to resolve.

    Update: I enabled the GL acceleration in Advanced Settings on the Pi but it made little difference. However adding the following gcc options (for the Raspberry Pi 2 specifically):

    -mcpu=cortex-a7  -mfpu=neon-vfpv4

    to the compile did improve the performance to be 33% of the speed of an actual MCM/70.  I'm confident that further tweaks can get us up to par. 

  • The Game Plan

    Michael Gardi03/31/2022 at 16:58 0 comments

    Look. I would like nothing better than to find a dusty old MCM/70 computer for cheap in some thrift shop and restore it to it's former working glory. Realistically we all know how unlikely this is given that relatively few MCM/70s were ever produced and that it has been close to 50 years since the last one was made. 

    So what about recreating the hardware from scratch. Obtain the original schematics and with luck PCB layouts, source the parts, many of which are vintage now and no longer manufactured, and make a replica. While this is might be possible, the endeavor would be very expensive, certainly well beyond the means of the average enthusiast like myself.

    Another possibility is to create an emulation of the MCM/70 in software. This is just what the team at the The York University Computer Museum (YUCoM) did. From their web page:

    An alternative approach to the direct use of MCM hardware  is to write historically accurate software emulators of this computer destined for modern desktop and laptop computers. Although such emulators do not necessarily reflect the computer's hardware on, say, integrated circuit level, they offer a platform for research of general hardware organization, storage organization, systems and applications software,  etc.

    Software emulation is great and is certainly an important part of preserving these wonderful old machines, but I have found that nothing beats the feel of typing on a  physical keyboard and hearing the sounds of the keys clicking. 

    So here is where I come in. My plan is to make a full size MCM/70 computer reproduction with a real keyboard and display which I'll integrate into the YUCoM emulator. This physical reproduction will be as accurate as possible but made with modern components and fabrication techniques. For instance, the case will probably be 3D printed. I will add the cassette bays to give an authentic look but at least for my first out they will not be functional, instead using the emulator's virtual cassettes.  Ultimately I will produce an Instructable so that others might make their own MCM/70 should they choose to. 

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Discussions

Peabody1929 wrote 05/11/2022 at 17:27 point

The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA has two MCM/70s in it collection.  There are numerous documents and manuals for it.  If you search the collection for the MCM/70, one of the objects has photos of the boards inside the machine.  

  Are you sure? yes | no

Ken Yap wrote 04/03/2022 at 00:10 point

👍 This is cool. I like projects that involve unearthing some fascinating technical history. Should be interesting.

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Michael Gardi wrote 04/03/2022 at 03:27 point

Thanks Ken. I’ve already learned so much about this historic machine.

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Cees Meijer wrote 04/02/2022 at 19:45 point

OMG! You're doing it Again!  Do you have unlimited time on your hands for all these projects ?

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Michael Gardi wrote 04/02/2022 at 20:56 point

Actually I’m retired Cees, so I kind of do have the time.

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Tom Nardi wrote 03/31/2022 at 02:32 point

If there's anyone who can do this project justice, it's you. Very excited to see your take on this unique machine.

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Michael Gardi wrote 03/31/2022 at 15:17 point

Thanks Tom.  As a proud Canadian I'm excited too!

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