Re-living computing history with a PDP-8 (Raspberry Pi)

The Raspberry Pi is a great tool for re-living and learning from the past, whether it’s emulating classic video games, emulating an IBM System/370 for learning JCL and COBOL, or, in today’s example, emulating a PDP-8, one of the early computers, and the first to run “Adventure”, among other early games.

Over at IEEE Spectrum, they’re running an article about experiencing the PDP-8 on a Pi. The first thing to remember is, this is an exercise in miniaturization. In 1965, the PDP-8 took up a large amount of physical space – about the same amount as if you had 4 mid-sized PC towers stacked 2×2. The Raspberry Pi, by comparison, is about the size of two decks of cards stacked atop each other.

The PDP-8 for Pi, or the PiDP-8, gives you a wooden enclosure with LEDs and switches to re-create the vintage appearance of the PDP-8. The whole thing runs the emulation program simh, with an application to make the LEDs for the switches fade off and on, like they’re incandescent-lit instead of LED.

It’s possible to load programs from disk, tape, or Wi-Fi, and possible to program it using the switches, just as in the old days. As with any sort of emulation, some of the quick fun is there by playing old classic games. Spacewar! was one of the first vector games, and text adventure games like StarTrek and Colossal Cave Adventure, which I grew up playing on the IBM PC in BASIC.

Even if you aren’t into reliving my childhood by typing in BASIC games from magazines or books, you could also use this to learn FORTRAN. Most of all, it’s a cool way to understand computers that preceded the types of operating systems we use today.

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