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Archive for July, 2016

The Vintage Computer Festival is Almost Here!

Vintage Computer Festival West XI is happening next weekend, August 6-7 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. I’m belatedly dusting off the hardware for my exhibit and preparing the demos and signage. Anybody have a trade show style backdrop they’d like to lend me? 🙂

I’ll be exhibiting three of my hand-made computer creations, each of which has gone through some modifications for the show:


BMOW 1 – My original custom-made CPU and computer that kicked off this blog and my journey into hobby electronics. BMOW 1 is an 8-bit CPU, implemented with 7400-series TTL discrete logic and a few PALs. Built around this is peripheral hardware for I/O, sound, and video. The end result is a custom creation that’s vaguely similar to an Apple II in its performance and capabilities. And it’s all hand wire-wrapped, with thousands of individual wires.

New for VCF West, I’ve cut a porthole in the bottom of the case and added interior case lighting, to showcase the glorious mess of wires inside. I was nervous I’d break something while removing and replacing all the parts in the case, but BMOW survived and is still running strong.

68-katy-breadboard  68katy-pcb

68 Katy – A 68000-powered single-board Linux system that began life as “Linux on a breadboard”. It’s a super-minimal Linux system containing only a 68K family CPU, 512K ROM, and 512K RAM. I began with a 16 year old Linux distro and hacked it to support this hardware and its tiny memory size. The original version was literally built on a breadboard, though the current version is now a PCB with a serial port for I/O.

During testing for the VCF show, I found that 68 Katy was no longer running reliably. I’d previously overclocked the 8 MHz-rated 68008 CPU to 12 MHz. Restoring an 8 MHz oscillator seemed to fix the problems – for now.


Nibbler – Another custom-made CPU and computer with a 4-bit (nibble) architecture. Designed to be simple to build and easy to understand, Nibbler’s CPU core consists of just 13 discrete 7400-series logic chips – individual counters, registers, buffers, and gates. To complete the machine, it adds a few ROMs and an SRAM, as well as pushbuttons, an audio speaker, and a text display. With a 4-bit CPU and 4K of memory you might think Nibbler couldn’t do anything much more interesting than blink an LED, but it boasts some nice games and demos. Like BMOW 1, it’s all hand wire-wrapped.

Nibbler will see a significant change for the VCF show, time permitting. The original design uses a 4K ROM for storing the program – when you want to run a different program, you need to replace the ROM. I plan to substitute a 16K ROM with a DIP switch to control the highest two address lines, so I can select between four different stored programs without resorting to ROM swapping.

Antique and Custom Computers Galore

Beyond the BMOW stuff, the other exhibits planned for VCF West XI look great! They include Eric Schlaepfer’s MonSter 6502, Bill Buzbee’s Magic-1, vintage DEC and Data General systems, IBM mainframes, Amigas, TRS-80s, S-100 hardware, and much more. Check out the full list here.

The show hours are 9:30-6:00 on Saturday the 6th and 9:00-5:30 on Sunday the 7th. Do you plan to attend? Leave a comment below, and I’ll keep an eye out for you!

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ROM Disk Creation with ROM-inator II

ROM Disk

Good news, ROM-heads! The software needed for ROM-inator II programming is now available for Mac OSX as well as Windows, and I’m marking the occasion with this step-by-step guide for creating your own bootable ROM disk. Here’s what you’ll need in order to get started:


Software and Files
You can find the latest versions of all of these in the Downloads section of the ROM-inator II project page.

  • ROM SIMM Programmer utility software
  • FC8 compression command-line software
  • ROM-inator II 512K base ROM file

Disk Image File

Lastly, you’ll also need a disk image file that defines the contents of your ROM disk. If you’ve previously used a Floppy Emu disk emulator or a Macintosh software emulator like Mini vMac, you’ve doubtless seen these kinds of disk image files before. For ROM-inator II, the disk image file should be in “raw” format, meaning it contains only the actual contents of the Macintosh disk with no extra headers or checksums. Files in this format typically have a .dsk suffix for their filename. If in doubt, confirm that the first two bytes of the file are 4C 4B (hex). You’ll find an example disk image at the ROM-inator II project page.

Prepare the Disk Image

When using compression, the standard ROM-inator II SIMM can store a disk image as large as about 5.5 MB – the exact limit depends on the contents of the disk image and its compressibility. The ROM-inator II MEGA can store a disk image as large as about 12 MB. You can use your own pre-existing disk image, or start with these empty 5.5 MB or empty 12 MB disk images. If you’re using your own disk image, its size must be a multiple of 65536 bytes (64 KB).

I recommend Mini vMac for editing the contents of the disk image. It’s a cross-platform tool that emulates a Macintosh Plus, and you can quickly mount disk images by dragging them into the Mini vMac window. Once you’ve mounted a few different disk images, you can copy programs and data between images to configure your ROM disk image however you’d like it. If you’re unfamiliar with this process, check out this disk image setup tutorial for the original ROM-inator.

On Windows, another alternative is HFV Explorer to transfer data directly to/from the disk image, without a Mac emulation intermediary.

Don’t forget to include a System folder in your disk image! The Macintosh will need an operating system in order to boot. You can find installers for Systems 6 and 7 at Macintosh Garden – as well as all sorts of other vintage Mac software.

Compress the Disk Image


Next, you’ll compress the disk image file so that it fits in the space available in ROM. The compression format is FC8, a custom format that I designed specifically for this purpose. The FC8 compressor is a command line program, so you’ll need to run it from a command prompt (Windows) or terminal (Mac). The ROM-inator II disk driver uses FC8’s block compression format, with 65536 byte blocks. To compress the disk image, type this at the command line:

fc8.exe -b:65536 mydisk.dsk mydisk.fc8

This will compress the disk image file mydisk.dsk, and create the compressed file mydisk.fc8. If the fc8 program or the disk images aren’t in the current directory, you’ll need to specify the path to those files on the command line.

Check the size of the resulting mydisk.fc8 file. For the standard ROM-inator II SIMM, the compressed file must be no larger than 3.5 MB (3670016 bytes). For the ROM-inator II MEGA, the compressed file must be no larger than 7.5 MB (7864320 bytes). If it’s too big, remove some files from your disk image and try again. Note that simply deleting a file from the disk image may not help, because “deleting” normally just marks sectors as unused but doesn’t actually set their contents to zero. To truly delete the file and gain better compression density, you may need to create a new disk image from scratch and then copy all the files from the old disk image. It’s a minor hassle, but worth it for the improved compression density. For reference, the example disk image compresses to 63% of its original size, when using FC8 65536 byte blocks.

Create the ROM Contents File

You’ll need to concatenate the 512K base ROM file and the compressed disk image file, in order to create the final ROM contents file. The base ROM file contains the low-level code needed to operate your Macintosh, including the ROM disk driver that performs on-the-fly decompression of your disk image’s data. At the time of writing this file is named iisi+romdrv1.2.rom, but check the project page to get the latest version. The concatenation is performed on the command line, using the built-in programs copy (Windows) or cat (Mac OSX and Linux):

copy /b iisi+romdrv1.2.rom + mydisk.fc8 myrom.rom (Windows)

cat iisi+romdrv1.2.rom mydisk.fc8 > myrom.rom (Mac OSX and Linux)

This will concatenate the files iisi+romdrv1.2.rom and mydisk.fc8, and create the combined file myrom.rom. If the files aren’t in the current directory, you’ll need to specify the path to those files on the command line.

The resulting myrom.rom file should be 4 MB (4194304 bytes) or less for the standard ROM-inator II, or 8 MB (8388608 bytes) or less for the MEGA, in order to fit the space available in ROM SIMM.

Program the SIMM


The final step is to program the ROM-inator II SIMM with your new ROM contents file. Connect your ROM SIMM Programmer to your PC or Mac’s USB port. Turn the programmer’s power switch to OFF, insert the ROM SIMM in the socket, then turn the switch to ON. Open the ROM SIMM programmer utility software.

From the software’s GUI, select myrom.rom as the file to write. Programming speed will be fastest when “verify after writing” is selected as the verification option. Ensure the SIMM capacity is set correctly (4 MB for the standard ROM-inator II SIMM, 8 MB for the MEGA), then press the Write to SIMM button.

After programming is complete, turn the programmer’s power switch to OFF, and then remove the ROM SIMM from the socket. Have fun with your new ROM disk!

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