At home with Josh

A Tour of my Workspace

Like many of you, I’ve been spending most of my time at home these days. While the museum is closed to the public, the engineers and other awesome staff are hard at work planning future exhibits and tours, polishing up our on-line systems, and working on hardware and software projects from the comfort of their couches. Or in my case, a workbench in the basement.

While I’ve been working from home, I’ve been hacking on a bit of emulation on the Unibone, archiving a huge pile of 8″ floppy disks and doing some preparatory research for a future emulation project. But I thought some of you might be interested what I’ve been working on in my spare time, which, as it turns out, is mostly identical to what I would usually be doing in my day-to-day when on site at the museum.

I have what might charitably be called a “hoarding problem” and as such I have ended up with a tiny computer museum in my basement that I’ve been adding to for the past twenty or thirty years. What started as a couple of Commodore 64s and TRS-80s (and so, so, so many TI-99/4As) scavenged from garage sales for $5 a pop when I was eleven has grown to encompass micros, minis and a few supercomputers crammed into an ever-shrinking space in my basement. Over the years I’ve learned to restore and maintain these systems, and since starting work as an engineer at LCM+L, I’ve gained even more knowledge but I still have a lot more to learn. In my spare time I tinker on machines in my collection, getting them to work again and making them do stupid/clever things.

So, here’s a brief tour of my basement museum, after which I’ll introduce you to my current restoration project.

So much computer, so little space. Note the fine wood-grain paneling on the walls. No basement should be without it.

Starting on the left-hand end of the west wall, we have an AT&T 3B2/600G UNIX system (1986) on top of a DEC PDP-11/73 (1983) and MicroVAX-I (1984). A classic LSI ADM-3A terminal adorns the 3B2. The PDP-11/73 was the first DEC system (and first minicomputer, even though DEC referred to it as a micro) I acquired, when I was still in high school. At the time it was running Micro-RSX, now it runs 2.11BSD. The large system to the right is a DEC VAX-11/750 (1980) with TU80 9-track drive. The 750 is restored and when I need to heat up the room, it runs 4.3bsd-Quasijarus or VMS. There’s currently a Data General Dasher D200 terminal on top of the TU80; it’s awaiting the completion of an Eclipse S/230 system.

Even More Computers

Moving further to the right, the DEC and Data General equipment continues: In the left rack I have a 1971 Data General Nova 820 (well, it’s a Canadian “DataGen” system but apart from a faint maple syrup smell…) on top of a DEC PDP-8/I (1968) with an OEM front panel. The Diablo 30 belongs to the Nova and has yet to be restored. In the right rack is a PDP-11/40 system (1973), with two RL02 removable pack drives (capacity 10mb) and one RK05 drive (capacity 2.5mb). The 11/40 runs a variety of systems: RT-11, RSX, Ultrix-11, and I plan to play around with RSTS on it sometime in the not-too-distant future. The PDP-8/I is in working condition but currently lacks peripherals beyond the basic teletype interface.

PDP-8s abound!

Continuing our tour, we are confronted with even more DEC equipment. The Straight-8 on the left is one of my favorite systems and I’m incredibly lucky to have found it. The Straight-8 is the first of the PDP-8 line, introduced in 1965. This particular unit is serial number 14, making it a very early example of this system (about 1500 of this model were made). It is nearly fully restored — there is a random glitch in the teletype interface that causes it to hang at random times and I haven’t yet tracked down the cause (though I suspect an intermittent backplane connection.) The next rack contains my workhorse PDP-8: a PDP-8/m with TU56 DECtape drive, RX02 floppy drive, RK05 removable pack drive and PC05 high-speed paper-tape reader and punch (these latter two are currently obscured by the ASR33 Teletype sitting in front of them). At the moment I have TSS/8 running on it.

Computer potpourri

The next rack to the right contains a miscellaneous assortment of minicomputers in various states of repair. From top to bottom: Texas Instruments 990/4 (1975, Data General Nova 800 (1971), Texas Instruments 980B (1974), PDP-8/e (1971), and mostly hidden is a Bunker Ramo BR-2412 (1971), an obscure 12-bit system originally manufactured by Nuclear Data. Tucked away in the corner is an AMT DAP 610, c. 1990. This is a massively parallel array processor, sporting 4096 1-bit processors in a 64×64 array. Each processor runs at 10Mhz, has its own memory and can communicate with its immediate neighbors via high-speed links. The system is capable of 40 billion boolean operations per second. It’s also technically a SCSI peripheral! The front-end processor for the DAP is a run-of-the-mill Sun Sparcstation LX.

North Wall: Way too much stuff

Progressing along the north wall, we have a smattering of systems and terminals, the most notable being the Inmos ITEM (“Inmos Transputer Evaluation Module”) which contains 40 Transputer processors, the PDP-11/34 (1977) which I’m using for Unibone development while working from home. The Tektronix 4051 computer and 4014 terminal are really cool examples of Tektronix’s Direct-View Storage Tube technology. The blue system in the corner is what remains of an Imlac PDS-1D (with front panel console box in front) and in front of that is a small rack with an Interdata Model 70 processor in it. Way back in the corner are shelves full of calculators and miscellaneous items too numerous to cover in detail. Also it’s a mess over there, and I try not to look at it too long. Avert your eyes…

Ridge 32 and VAX-11/730

Along the east side of the basement are a couple more systems: A Ridge 32 Supermini and a VAX-11/730. The Ridge 32 (1984) is an early 32-bit RISC design designed to be a VAX killer but hobbled by its operating system, ROS. ROS was a UNIX-alike system and at the time that just wasn’t enough, despite the system’s extremely fast CPU. The VAX-11/730 (1982) is one of my favorite systems — it’s the world’s slowest VAX at slightly less than 1/3 the speed of the original VAX-11/780 (0.3 VUPS) but it’s small, relatively quiet, and clever — The entire VAX processor was compressed into three hex-height boards. A couple of years back, I took this system to the beach:

VAX on the beach

Where it ran for 5 days providing dial-up service at 300 baud and a splendid time was had by all. We only tripped the breakers a few dozen times and it only rained once…

Where was I?

LispM’s, PERQs, and Suns, oh my!

Next up along the east wall is a collection of workstations; from left to right these are: Symbolics XL1200 (1990), Symbolics 3630 (1986), Three Rivers PERQ 1A (1981), and a Sun 2/120 (1986). The Symbolics systems are part of a class of systems known as “Lisp Machines” (LispM’s for short). They are near and dear to my heart — sophisticated systems from a lost era of computing. The PERQ 1A is a computer that came out of Pittsburgh in the early 1980s — a graphical workstation inspired by the Xerox Alto with local storage, a high resolution (768×1024) display, ethernet, and a microcoded CPU. It was an immensely clever design and was a very powerful machine for the time (and for the price) but Three Rivers never quite figured out how to compete in the market against Sun, Apollo and others. It is quirky and strange and hacked together, and I love it so much I wrote an emulator for it way back in 2006

The middle row of computer junk

Finally we have the center row of benches where I have a few notable systems set up, including two currently slated for restoration: a Xerox Alto and an LMI Lambda. I picked these two up on a recent trip out east, and they are two systems I never thought I’d own. I’m really looking forward to restoring them both, and my plan is to document the restoration here on this blog over the coming weeks. I’ve chosen the Lambda for the first restoration — I love the Alto more than just about anything else in my collection (I wrote an emulator for it even) but there are already several restored specimens in the world (including at LCM+L, of course) and there are, at the time of this writing, no LMI systems in operating condition in the world. (The Lambda in my basement is one of six known to exist.)

A Bit Of Background on LMI and the Lambda

The history of Lisp Machine Incorporated (LMI) and of lisp machines in general has been written about fairly extensively in various places (see here and here) and this post is running a bit long already, so I’ll provide an abridged version in this post:

In the mid-1970s a group of hackers at MIT’s AI Lab designed a series of computer systems for the specific purpose of running Lisp programs efficiently. The first was known as the CONS, and its successor the CADR was a sufficiently successful design that it was proposed to create a commercial product in the nascent Lisp AI space. Opinions differed on the best course of action and so two competing endeavors ensued: Lisp Machine Inc., and Symbolics. Both companies started off selling commercialized versions of the CADR (LMI’s as the LMI CADR, Symbolics’s as the LM-2) before expanding off into their own designs. Symbolics emerged the victor: their follow-up to the CADR, the 3600 series, was extremely successful while LMI struggled to sell their Lambda workstation — fewer than 200 were sold. LMI went bust in 1987 before it could produce its Lambda successor, the K-Machine.

My Lambda

My Lambda came out of a drafty Pennsylvania garage it had been sitting in for over twenty years. It was covered in a fine grit of mouse droppings, dust, and bits of shingle from when the garage’s roof was replaced several years back. It also has a fine patina of rust and corrosion on nearly every surface.

It’s also missing the tape drive and disk drive. The good news is that both of these are at least somewhat still possible to find: The tape drive was a standard Cipher F880 9-track drive with a Pertec interface, and the hard drive was a Fujitsu Eagle SMD drive. It’s likely that any Pertec-compatible tape drive will work, and it should be possible to find a suitable SMD disk that still functions.

Apart from the missing drives, the system appears to be complete: The backplane is fully populated with boards and in fact is a 2×2-PLUS system (two LISP CPUs and a 68010-based UNIX CPU in one chassis!). Two consoles were included with cabling, but only one keyboard and mouse, alas.

Restoration Plan

So my hope is to restore this system to operating condition, and since I’ll be here at home a lot more than usual I’ll have ample spare time to do it in! As I progress in the restoration in my off hours I’ll post updates here to keep you all in the loop and to give you an idea of the kind of steps we typically undertake when restoring systems at LCM+L.

It’s important to have a plan for this sort of thing; so here’s my current plan of attack, which is of course subject to change depending on how things go:

  1. General cleanup. After twenty years in the garage, this thing smells fairly musty and as mentioned previously, is quite dirty. The chassis, consoles, cables and all assorted ephemera need to be cleaned out and inspected for damage. If mice get into computer hardware they can do serious damage. I haven’t seen any evidence of this but it’s best to be sure.
  2. Inspection, cleaning, and testing of the system power supplies. Just plugging a system like this in after so many years lying dormant is a bad idea. The supplies will be removed from the system, checked out and tested with dummy loads prior to reinstallation. Any necessary repairs to the supplies will be undertaken at this time.
  3. Inspection and cleaning of the boards in the backplane, and the backplane itself. This entails cleaning of corroded pins on socketed ICs and inspecting for serious damage.
  4. Power up of a subset of boards, starting with the SDU (System Diagnostic Unit). The SDU can be used to inspect and test the rest of the boards in the system, once a tape drive has been procured.
  5. Find a working tape drive and disk drive; write out a copy of the LMI Installation and System tapes.
  6. Use the SDU to test the rest of the boards in the system.
  7. Restore one or both of the Lambda consoles; use the SDU to test them.
  8. Install the system to disk.
  9. Boot the system.
  10. Do a dance of some kind.

Daniel Seagraves (author of LambdaDelta, a most-excellent LMI Lambda emulator) is undertaking a similar effort as I type this; he rescued two Lambdas from a much worse garage than the one mine came from and is documenting his restoration efforts here. We’ve been chatting and he’s been extremely helpful in inspecting my Lambda and has sent me some updated SDU ROMs and an Ethernet interface for my system. His help will be instrumental in getting my system going.

Whew. I think that’s enough for one blog post. The next post will bring everything up to date with the current status of the restoration.