Retro Challenge - 2015/01 - Day 31

Retrochallenge Complete

Well we are at the end again and I'm pretty pleased with what I've managed to get done.

Wasn't expecting to do much this time round and we are now less than 3 weeks away from the baby being here.
Glad I managed to get a bit of time in to do something I've been trying to have a look at for ages.

Using The MDFS

So now that the MDFS is up and working ok I've started to load some games onto it so I don't have to go routing through disks and can easily setup a machine to play on when I get the chance.


Well there is one game that needed to be played to signify the completion of my Retrochallenge, that game is Elite...

Can't wait to read everyone's write up and catch you all in the summer.

Retro Challenge - 2015/01 - Day 21

Risc OS North West User Group (RONWUG)

Took my kit over to RONWUG to demonstrate how to setup an Econet network.

We started by setting up the MDFS and I explained the workings of the box. I decided to leave the tape unit at home as the thing is pretty heavy so it just has the floppy and hard disk units attached.

We looked at the serial connection and the built in administration menu, then I showed how to change disks using the "Release Discs" button on the front, how to shut down the unit and how the key on the front works.

I had wired up a set of socket boxes to use as a backbone on the network, the socket box below has a machine connected and a terminator as it the end of the network. There is another terminator at the other end.

The socket boxes basically sit on a five core cable that is Krone connected to the box. The cable is basically a bus network with 2 data lines (+/-), 2 clock lines (+/-) and a ground cable.

We then added in the clock between the 2 segments of the network and connected the 2 lines to each side of the network.

The clock should be as central in the network cable as possible.

Once we connected this the red "No Clock" led on the MDFS went out showing it was seeing the network clock.

We then connected a BBC Master and an Archimedes to the socket boxes. On resetting the Master using Break + N the screen shows "Econet Station 194" and then runs the !Boot file from the MDFS.

We then used the *DIR and *CAT commands to view the files on the MDFS. We found a games called IMOGEN and loaded that from the MDFS to show it working.

Upton typing the *STATIONS command we got back a list of machines connected to the network, the Archimedes was in the list showing as station 130.

On the Archimedes we checked out the NETFS filer that allows the system to browse the file shares on the MDFS, you enter your login details and it opens the filer window showing the contents of the MDFS.

I also showed how to upgrade the BBC Master to use Econet. Below shows the installed Econet card in the internal slot.

The Master uses the same card as the Archimedes range and the A3000 and A5000.

All in all we had a good night. The next job is to make the Archimedes bridge to a TCP/IP network so that I can access the MDFS via the network.

Retro Challenge - 2015/01 - Day 12

Sorting Out The BBC Master

After the initial BBC power supply failed I grabbed a BBC Master out of storage and brought it over.
As usual I then found that I couldn't for the life of me find the BBC to SCART cable for the monitor, I was using this a while ago but since then I've been moving house and have boxed up lots of my stuff and put it in storage.

After searching every box in storage I gave up and ordered a new one from the Retro Computer Shack I have had several cables from here an they are very nicely made.
Thankfully it arrived today so I manage to get the Master working ok.
While I was at it I ordered a few repair kits for the BBC power supplies and will at some point try and refurbish the capacitors in them.

After getting the Master working I opened the case up and removed the dead and corroded batteries that had been left inside, luckily they are contained in a plastic wrapper so haven't leaked anywhere.

The machine doesn't have an Econet card installed so my next job is to go off to the storage locker and find some Econet cards and the ANFS roms that are in boxes somewhere in there.

I did manage to find some extra Econet boxes, cables and a set of terminators, these are home made but should hopefully do the job. I also found that I have an SJ split Econet box, this is for putting in the middle of the network and attaching the clock, the normal way to do this is to have 2 segments and attach the clock between the ends of 2 of them. The SJ box allows me to do this without having to use multiple boxes and is much neater.

Retro Challenge - 2015/01 - Day 9

Its Melting...

Found the issue with the tape drive, it was as I had read on the internet. The capstan roller that moves the tape is covered in rubber, due to the rubber not being cured correctly it has degraded into a pile of goo.

You can see the roller inside its the orange bit, it should be round but has melted and dripped into a pool of goo on the bottom of the drive.

Fixing The Drive

Well I decided to remove the roller from the old unit and replace it on the new one, the new drive works apart from the issue with the roller where the other drive was dead but had a good roller that is intact.

I opened up the casing on the unit that has the old drive and found the reason it wasn't working, the power lead had fallen out inside the casing.

Checking The Tapes

Once I had the unit working ok I powered up the MDFS and went to the tape menu.

I had a brand new tape in its packaging so I decided to try to backup the hard disk.
After formatting the tape (which took about 40 minutes) I selected the backup option and entered the first partition to backup, the drive took a while and finally started to check the backup. Once done I tried to verify the tape just to check everything was ok.

I had a bunch of opened tapes and put them through the verification, they were mostly ok but there are parts where the tape has oxidised and they are basically dead.

Going to see if I can find some new ones on ebay so that I can backup the other drives.

Retro Challenge - 2015/01 - Day 6

BBC Failure

Got out one of my nice looking and clean BBCs thinking that it would be less likely to have issues.

Plugged the machine in and connected to the monitor.

Nasty smell and the famous white smoke started pouring out of the power supply.
Guess that's another one that needs the capacitors replacing.

Tape Drive

Got the new tape drive unit from storage and plugged it in, all looks good it has the correct lights etc and tries to load the tape.

Unfortunately nothing is moving inside the tape, looking inside the unit it looks like the pinch roller inside has perished, apparently this is quite common. So now need to see if I can replace it with a suitable alternative.

Retro Challenge - 2015/01 - Day 5

MDFS Setup

Started by setting up the main MDFS unit, and attaching the floppy drive unit to it.
After some searching on the internet found the manual for it.

Now connected my serial cable (which is a standard PC 9 pin to 5 pin DIN connector on the MDFS side), luckily this is the same as the BBC and I managed to find my already wired cable so didn't require soldering a new one.

The MDFS has the coolest on button (or rather a key). To start the server in normal mode you turn it to "Secure" or to "System" if you want to be able to enable "Utility Mode" or access certain functions from a networked BBC once it is running.

To stat off I turned on the MDFS an put the key to the "System" setting.

The power light now comes on and the "Discs Free" light starts to flash.

Now I started a terminal emulator and connected it to COM3 of my PC, pressing return gets a response from a monitor program that is ready to load the main system.

Now I inserted the system boot disk and pressed the "Release Discs" button on the front of the unit.

The disk drives are now polled and the system loads the main boot code from the disc, the "Discs Free" light now goes solid and the "Utility Mode" light also comes on.

At this point if I press return on the terminal I get the following menu.

There are various options available including "Boot the fileserver" which take the system out of utility mode and starts serving files on the network. If I mounted another disk you can serve just floppy discs to the network (this is what the original Acorn fileserver did).

Next I added the hard disc unit and the tape system unit to the stack.

On rebooting I found that the system will boot from the hard disk as it already has the boot code required installed, this means I don't need the floppy disk anymore.

Checking The Discs

After booting back into utility mode I used the "L" item on the menu to check the discs on the system, it turns out that I have 3 hard discs and a tape drive (I didn't realise the tape unit had a hard disc inside).

The discs reported are...

Ver 0703

F : Name: FS1   41600K

Ver 040C0800

I1: Name: FS2   61360K
I2: Name: FS3   1040K

Ver 1002

J1: Name: FS4   61360K
J2: Name: FS5   36400K

So there is a 40Mb, 60Mb and a 100mb drive split into 5 partitions.

I also tried to access the tape drive but this doesn't seem to want to work, I have a spare brand new unit in storage so I will bring that over and try it.

Also ran the verify on the discs, F is fine, J has one block on partition 2 that its not happy about and drive I seems totally on is way out. (Too be honest the drive doesn't sound that good).

Retro Challenge - 2015/01 - Day 2

Econet Clock

A nice guy in Germany did a swap of some Sinclair stuff that I didn't want for a SJ Research Econet Clock.

The clock arrived the other day and I finally got round to having a quick look at it.

The image shows the dip switches that allow the fine tuning of the network speed. This was one of the things the SJ clock did that was better than the Acorn one, it allows for complete control over the packet time and gap between packets.

Serial Cable

While over at my storage locker I managed to get the MDFS out and brought it home to fire it up.
The power lights come on so it looks like its doing something.

Next I need a serial connection to the back of the MDFS to check the status of the system and to configure it.
I started to make a serial cable but haven't quite managed to finish it yet.

Retro Challenge - 2015/01

Another year and a new global format, due to the fact that in the UK we don't really get a summer (Winter warm-up is basically the same as the summer one) we are now numbering the challenges by month (does this mean we can have mini 2015/03 challenges in-between?).

Mini Me...

This year I've got a miniature clone on the way due in February so I'll be fairly busy sorting out various things ready for the new arrival.
Thus this time I'm going for a small project that I might actually have chance to finish.

The Challenge...

As you may have gathered I'm a bit of an Acorn Computer nutcase, my collection of various machines is no longer welcome at my girlfriends so I have to hide my precious at an undisclosed location and secretly sneak them into the house when she's not around.

I recently acquired a set of SJ Research MDFS units from a friend and have all the elements to connect my BBCs together using an Econet network (Acorns cheap networking solution for the time).
Econet is basically a bus network with a clock signal to synchronise each of the hosts.

Initial Econet Network

To create the initial network I will need the following...

  • BBC Micros (I Have lots)
  • Econet cards for BBCs (these are internal cards that upgrade the BBC to allow for Econet use)
  • Econet clock (This provides the clock on the network and synchronises the machines)
  • Econet terminators (These are basically a set of resistors that sit at the end of the cables to stop reflection of the signal back down the cables)
  • Cable (Need to wire these up)
  • Socket boxes (Ideally I'll pull out the socket boxes that provide and easy way to plug the machines into the core network cable)

To start with I will get the clock working and set each machine an ID on the network, they should then be able to use basic services.

File Server

Once the main network is setup I want to look at getting the MDFS file server running, the initial bits to get working are...

  • SJ MDFS (This is a fileserver for the Econet network, it can also act as a clock but we are not using it for this) (I have 2 of these so hopefully at least one will work ok)
  • SJ MDFS Floppy Disk Unit (Add in the ability to load floppy disks and thus boot the system)

Then we can add...

  • SJ MDFS Hard Disk Unit (The SCSI disk unit which will store our files)
  • SJ MDFS Tape Unit (The tape backup unit which I have some backup tapes for, might see if we can restore some data)

Extra bits...

If we get everything working on the MDFS then I have these extra goals...

  • Econet bridge (Allows me to create a fast and slow Econet network, one for the BBCs and another for Archimedes which can have a much higher clock speed)
  • Risc PC / Archimedes (Connect one of the newer Acorn machines to the network, I have an Econet card for the Risc PC which would be interesting to get working)
  • SJ Nexus (This was a newer version of the MDFS that served data via a ATM type networking protocol)
  • A5000 Gateway (An Acorn A5000 which I originally setup to bridge the Nexus to a normal TCP/IP network thus allowing access to the Nexus from newer machines, Ideally I would like to include connecting this to the MDFS via Econet and using it as a bridge to all data sources, it should also allow me to access the internet from Econet enabled machines)


I have promised to do a session at RONWUG (RISC OS North West User Group) around the use of Econet so would like to get a basic network running and setup ready for 21st January.
We can also use this evening to configure bits and play around with various aspects such as the MDFS and clock speeds etc and generally play around with stuff.
Depending on how far along I am we may try and do something cool like get a BBC on the internet.

Can't Wait...

So there is my challenge. Now to get Christmas out of the way so we can get started :)

Acorn Risc PC @ Hull University 1997

Here is my Risc PC from 1997 in my university room. Bought this at the Acorn World show that year.
Acorn disbanded the entire desktop division the year after.

The spec if I remember was..

233 Mhz Strong Arm
32 MB Ram
2 MB VRam
1.6 GB Hard Disk
CD Rom
Network Card
PC Card

Still have the machine and the Viglen 486 that is on the floor below this.