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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Homebrew Computers -- REALLY Homebrew Computers

Hackaday has an article today that is, for me, very timely.   In our last podcast, Pete and I were discussing the meaning of the word "homebrew" in the world of Software Defined Radio.  As always, Pete was closer to the cutting edge, while I remain mired in Ludite (one D please!) curmudgeonism, committed to RADICAL FUNDAMENTALIST HOMEBREWING.  No chips and no menus for me please.  

Today, the Hackaday guys came to my rescue with a blast from the past.  Homebrew computers!  Not that simple "buy a mo-bo and plug in some boards" stuff.   No, REAL homebrew, so HB that they even made their own components.  1968.  I can dig it!  I should have gone down this road.  I had the C.L. Stong book "The Amateur Scientist" IN MY HANDS. It had some great articles about relay-based computers.  I could have been rich! 



  1. You may enjoy reading about this homemade AGC replica: http://klabs.org/history/build_agc/

  2. It was a very limited field, but of course people built computers. Heathkit had an analog computer and the hobby electronic magazines had a few articles about that sort of thing. I think it was Electronics Illustrated that had a very basic computer in the early sixties, lots of telephone dials and relays.

    Or people salvaged or bought surplus some sort of commercial computer. There was an article in one of the hobby magazines about a high school or university getting a computer that had been written off after being flooded by seawater. I cant' remember if they finished the project, but they certainly had a lot of work to do, not only clean it out, but to move it, cabling had been cut.

    But at some point, there was the ACS, the Amateur Computer Society, some of the members were better known once the "home computer" field took off. They either built their own from scratch, or somehow got a hold of some commercial computer. Often it was less about having a computer, and about trying to get it to work. But of course at that point, nobody was thinking much about what to do with computers, just to have one was an end in itself. There was a newsletter which I think was sporadic, a chance for individuals who had this interest to share with others.

    Roger Amidon built one out of TTL ICs, it was on the cover of Byte in 1977, just a big mass of ICs and wires, no chassis, so he called it "The Spider". Hal Chamerberlin, who went on to be known in home computer circles for electronic music was an ACS member, but I cant' remember what computer he was supposed to have. PDP/8s were almost within range, and maybe some became surplus.

    The November 1972 issue of "73", the thickest there was up to that point, had an article about making your own computer. It wasn't a construction article, it was an idea article, mapping out what was needed just before the microprocessors hit. So he was talking about using TTL, and finding core memory as surplus. I always wondered if that article set things up for Wayne Green's interest in home computers a few years later.

    The reality is that there were people who wanted computers before it seemed possible. Some pursued it, others just wished. And it was that latter group who were around when the Mark 8 was in Radio Electronics in August of 1974, using an Intel 8008, and and the a few months later when the Altair 8800 was on the cover of Popular Electronics. That was the market, people who had already lusted for their own computer, sometimes for practical reasons, others just because, and that fueled things int he early days, before it all broadened out. There was even the Scelbi 8008 computer, which came early, I think the November 1974 issue of QST had an ad, but I never noticed it until I saw mention of it later, and when I looked, found the ad.If there hadn't been the people who wanted a computer, the field would never have taken off, and then where'd we be? Without that core group, there was no foundation to grow things until a wider market could be built up.


  3. Seeing that panel reminded me of my time as a Telephone Technician. My neighbour at the time (late 60's-early 70's, NZ - UK spelling! :) ) worked at the DSIR's (Department of Industrial and Scientific Research) climate-control lab - they assessed optimal growing conditions and climate-hardiness of crops Their CC rooms were controlled by an analogue computer (no idea of make) that was "porogrammed" using coloured pins as switches - it looked much like that picture.

    1. Sorry, brain-fade :) - Department of Scientific and Industrial Research


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