A bit ago I picked up a PDP-8 replica kit, the PiDP-8. A kit can be picked up here http://obsolescence.wixsite.com/obsolescence/pidp-8-get-one . They are under $200, and I always found older computers interesting so I thought I would give it a shot. I also find The Digital Equipment Corporation and interesting tale of a far gone computing era. (There were t-shirts with the DEC logo on Amazon, but they are gone now)
The kit itself is a little smaller than the original control panel; photo from the creators blog above. This is not a real PDP-8, it is a front panel with a Raspberry Pi on the back of it. The Raspberry Pi has an image that is on the user forums (which are incredibly helpful as well as a nice community) which boots very quickly and dives right into the modified emulator. The design is wonderful and just uses the pinout on the Pi.
I got the kit, then ended up moving across the country and did not setup the kit for several months. When I got to building the kit (2015 version, pictured above) it was 2016 and instructions were up for both version. Not many differences except the switches, and how they are mounted. My version needed me to remove pins from each switch then mount each on a rod to keep them aligned. The 2016 version also has more authentic looking switches. I got the switch rod put together with no difficulties.
Then it was down to soldering the trillions, well it felt that way, LEDS to the PCB that came on the kit. Small soldering is not my favorite thing, so this took a bit; but in the end it was done and I was happy with it.
I wanted to test my soldering skills, or lack there of. I plugged the Pi in, and started the image. A few of the lights dimly came up, the rest of them just were dead. Darn this means somewhere it’s broken. I did some traces with a multi-meter, and couldn’t find the fault. Then I realized while it was plugged in the one integrated circuit that handles the LEDs were was getting very hot. I emailed Oscar who made the project and he quickly responded and said it sounded like the integrated circuit was dead and he would mail one the next day or so.
He was extremely helpful and kind, and I got the new chip a few days later. I had to go to Radioshack, (I was surprised I could find one! And its no longer there a few months later) to get a desoldering wick. I haven’t used this before, but it helped me remove the old chip. I soldered the new chip in, and powered it up. Instantly it all came online! I wanted to check all the LEDs, to verify if the OS was keeping some off, or if the circuit was bad, I got a diagnostic program that was written for this system. It did indeed show there was a error, and after resolding a small point then everything was working!
Now that the system works, and I sized it in the box; it was time to paint the switches! I covered half of them with painters tape and painted some brown. Then later did another coat. Then did the white ones so they were not off white or having the red dots on them.
After it dried, I cut a hole in the side of the case so that I could access the USB ports of the Pi. I just had a tiny hobby hack saw and a drill, these were not the best tools to cut the hole but it worked out. I also put electrical tape over the edges of the hole to cover up my handiwork. Then I mounted the PCB with wooden blocks for support into the box. I got some velcro with tape on the back so attach the front panel; that way I can remove it whenever I want for service and easily reattach it.
I got a power switch that is inline with a USB cable. That way I can have a switch to power on and off the device. Then I thought the blinky lights were neat, so I mounted it on my wall for now. It boots directly into OS/8 and in idling does a little light show.
The project came out well, and I am excited for Oscar to release his PDP-11 clone he has been working on in the background. I haven’t spent that much time programming it, but it is nice to have a piece of computer history above my desk. A big part of this project has been the awesome community over at the forum https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/pidp-8 and the kindness of the project owner and his willingness to help. Oscar’s blog has some cool stuff as well, http://obsolescenceguaranteed.blogspot.com/ .
Next I want to do an Altair 8080 kit, while I wait for the PDP11 version! https://www.altairduino.com