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.

Retro Challenge - SC 2013 - Day 17

Initial Setup

Tried to get everything ready on Tuesday and ensure that the machines were working etc.
I was going to take 2 A3000s and have them connected to the Risc PC via Ethernet and use Acorn Access to share the Risc PCs hard disk, this would allow me to play some of the older games that only work on the original Archimedes range.

I found several of my A3000s and found that only one had the serial chips fitted (this was an extra purchase and had a set of chips installed into sockets inside the machine) as I wanted to run some multi-player serial connected games.

So instead I decided to take 2 A3010s which are the same format as the A3000 but of a newer design. They also have dual joystick ports and serial built in. I found 2 and got them fired up, dug out a few mice and a joystick and they were working ok.

One was already fitted with an Ethernet card so I had a look to see if I could get that to work with the Risc PCs shared disks, after cabling them up I found that the card is an older one without Acorn Access built into the ROM. Luckily I found another card which I have had working with my A3000 before and has Access built in. After swapping out the cards I tried again, nothing, the system can see that the cable is connected but will not create a link with the switch, I tried another old 10mb switch, still no joy. Don't know why its not working any more, will have a proper look some other time.

So checked that the Risc PC had all of my games loaded onto the hard disk, at which point the machine crashed nastily, it then did this several times in a row. Thinking this might be loose memory I took the machine apart and instantly found the problem. The battery had leaked onto the board and caused track damage, I've removed all of the other batteries from every Risc PC I have due to this problem. This one was ok last time I looked but has leaked since and damaged the machine.

So grabbed another from the cupboard and swapped out the cards etc to get another working machine.

RONWUG Meeting

On the Wednesday met everyone for RONWUG (Risc OS North West User Group) so that we could play with a few of the older games for the Archimedes range of Acorn computers.

We set up the 2 A3010s on a table with 2 of my monitors and were able to use the large plasma TV on the wall if required.

The Risc PC sat on the floor and shared the plasma or a monitor when needed.

Due to networking not working I took a large box of floppy disks along to use, a few were starting to get to the point where they won't read, luckily I'm in the middle of creating a disk archive of all of them.
I does show though how floppies that are now 20+ years old are starting to oxidise and die, no matter how well you try to keep them.

So we tried out a few of the classic Acorn games such as Chocks Away (which was quite amusing to watch everyone trying to land without crashing), Conqueror, SWIV, Black Angel, Lotus Turbo Challenge, Dune 2, Stunt Racer 2000 and of course Granny's Garden :)

On the left Black Angel and too the right is SWIV.

Note the graphics are squashed due to the use of newer monitors, would like to have taken my older monitors which work great with old games but they are bulky and awkward to transport so I opted for these instead.

We also dug out Granny's Garden (Archimedes version) for a giggle.