Retrochallenge - 2019/03

2019/03 RetroChallenge...

Well due to my abysmal entry last time and the fact that I've got another mini retro enthusiast due to be born in April I'm going to keep this time around pretty simple.

MicroVAX 3100

Ok so on a random whim I bought a MicroVAX 3100 with a VT520.

I used to use a large VAX mainframe at the first company I worked for. We developed a retail management product for multiple platforms but the original version ran on VMS.

I remember writing lots of C code to convert saved data from the Cobol system on the VAX to a newer 4GL version in Informix.

The mainframe always used to fascinate me, over the time that I worked there we would often configure various machines for our customers. One of the coolest was an 8 million pound machine that had 8 processors, I remember setting up software on it and testing the speed on it, it was amazingly fast at the time.

I was lucky enough to get to login to lots of different machines via modem all of which caused us headaches as the OS was different on them along with the endianness so we had to program structures to handle the data conversions to raw values.

They eventually did away with the VAX mainframe (I did consider at the time offering them some money for it but it took up the whole room and I didn't have anywhere to store it) and emulated the whole machine on a standard PC which I think it actually ran faster than the original hardware. 

So I'd like to have a play with the VAX and possibly try to install the latest OpenVMS version onto it.

RetroChallenge - 2018/09

2018/09 RetroChallenge...

Back several years ago I won the Retro Challenge with my ViewData BBS.
I want to fully re-write it using .Net Core to provide a more streamlined version with the ability to run on other platforms other than Windows. 

My goals for this are as follows...

Cross Platform / Containerisation

I want to be able to run the new system on multiple platforms including cloud based services such as Azure.
I want to be able to possibly containerise the system so that I can easily deploy multiple copies via containers such as Docker.

Pipeline With Modular Framework Components

Create a modular framework that allows pipelining of components together.
Currently the system has a fixed coded pipeline, I want the new system to have no requirement on any component that plugs into the pipeline.
This should allow me to create a generic BBS alongside the ViewData version by switching out components.
I also allows me to insert new functionality into the pipeline just by adding in new components.
The configuration of the pipeline will not be fixed and will be set in the configuration files.


The system needs to be able to handle both direct Telnet and dial up connections.
I intend to create the same sort of gateway for Dial up as before.
I also want to ideally have a web based terminal that can connect to the system. I have seen an example of a Minitel system doing this with Web sockets and may look at creating a gateway to allow this.


The system will respond to the standard * and # commands that the original Prestel system did. It will also allow for the use of keywords to quickly navigate to pages.
Basic command and navigation will be provided by a module that will allow the user to navigate between pages on the system.

Input Forms

I previously started on a prototype input mechanism that allows for input fields to be defined.
I want to expand on this and provide a framework for creating entry forms and applications.


A library of utilities for mapping graphics to areas of the screen would be useful. I would like to be able to load in images / sprites and have the system map them to the correct graphical output. Colour changes and mapping of colours would need to be optimised by the system to get the best output available.

Screen Optimisation

When updating the screen the system creates a buffer on the server side and remembers the state of the screen.
I want to be able to do clever things such as scroll / change areas of the screen without re-drawing the entire screen.
There are commands for moving the client cursor so I want the system to be able to calculate the commands to send to change just the parts of the screen that are necessary to minimise the amount of traffic required and to speed up client rendering. 

Telnet Gateway

The previous system had a telnet gateway that can connect to other online system and pass through the data.
This allows for connecting to other online only ViewData BBSs such as CCL4 and the new Telstar system. 

Telesoftware Implementation

The original Prestel system had a mechanism for downloading software via multiple pages.
A client could run special software that would move through the pages reading various embedded headers and encoded body data to retrieve data.
I would like to have the system be able to index various retro files and allow the client to download them.

Mail System

A mail system that allows users to send (internal) or maybe later full email needs to be implemented. I may try and make it reasonably authentic to the original Prestel by using the built in user ids to send message between users.

Search Engine

An implementation of a simple search engine that allows users to search Google and return results in a paginated way would be nice.

Twitter Feed

I'd like to have various twitter integration points. Ideally the system will tweet events that happen in the system such as users logging in and out and possibly display twitter feeds as pages in the system (these may be built offline and served as static pages).

Background Jobs

To update certain pages I will require a backend agent that updates static pages with content. 
The system may contain template pages that can be used by these agents to create content.
Automatic content such as Weather, news and other content that can be refreshed periodically will be created by background jobs.


The system will need static pages defined to add interesting content to the system.
There are a lot of original pages that I'd like to use as a base for certain parts of the system to give the users an experience as near to the original as possible.


Lots of other stuff I've either missed or will think of later...

The chance of me actually getting a large amount of this done is not very likely but I am away at the ABUG (Acorn BBC User Group) meeting for the weekend of the 8th so that would give me a reasonable time period to actually start something.

RetroChallenge - 2018/04 - Day 30

Well here we are again at the end of RetroChallenge and as usual I've done very little.
Here are the things I've actually managed to do over the month...


I tried installing the VideoNula board at the last ABUG meeting. Daniel kindly unsoldered the old video chip and added the socket to the board ready for the VideoNula to be installed.
Upon taking it out of its box I found that it was missing a pin. Luckily I managed to see the creator of this great bit of kit at the Wakefield show and managed to get a new one sorted.

Upon installing the VideoNula board I found that my PiTubeDirect overlapped into the space where the new board sat. To sort this I had to order some longer pin extensions which I added to the current pins to raise it above the VideNula board so that I can have both fitted.

Here they are both playing nicely together. The long board with a Pi Zero attached to it is the PiTubeDirect. Underneath that is the VideoNula board replacing the original video ULA chip.

The VideoNula allows for the palette to be selected from 4096 colours and supports hardware scrolling and various other extras.


The PiTubeDirect is a board that connects a Pi Zero to the Acorn tube interface (by running special software on the Pi) and emulates various co-processors that you could get for use with the BBC.
By running a certain command you can change to various different setups.

The co-processors supported are...

65C102 running at 274Mhz (nearly 100 times as fast as the actual hardware co-processor)
65C102 running at 3Mhz (same as the original co-processor for compatibility)
Native ARM (this runs on the actual Pi at 1Ghz)

By switching these on you can run code on a different platform and the BBC handles all IO.

Ethernet / MultiOS

I re-installed the Ethernet adapter from Sprow. This is a great item that sits in the machines Econet slow and provides modern networking. It provides the LanManFS filing system which lets you use a Windows share as a filesystem on the BBC.

Below the Ethernet card is the MultiOS board. This allows me to select various different OS versions by turning a switch on the back of the machine. I normally run in OS 3.5 but you can run the basic BBC 1.2 OS which allows for maximum compatibility. I need to create some OS images and get them burnt to the ROM so that I can change from the DataCentre (which requires a patched OS) to the BeebSCSI & GoTek floppy emulator (which works with the standard OS).

BeebSCI and VFS Adapter

I've already got a few of the BeebSCSI mini boards that allow the use of an SD card to provide a SCSI file system which is accessible from ADFS.

The DataCentre provides a similar thing but requires a patched version of ADFS to handle IDE drives. BeebSCSI works without needing to change anything on the machine.

As part of this project you can emulate a VFS drive (the laserdisc filing system that the Domesday project used). The final objective is to emulate the entire Domesday system without needing the laserdiscs or SCSI interface. 

Other Stuff

I started working out where the other interfaces I have will live inside the case.

Here are the DataCentre, BeebOPL (music synth) and the BeebSCSI mini. All run from the 1Mhz bus so I need to be able to switch between the DataCentre and the BeebSCSI easily.

I've got all the cables and connections ready just need to find the time to actually measure and make the cables to size.

My other external Co-Pro emulator, this is a different project but related to the PiTubeDirect.
This however uses a CPLD to do the heavy lifting. 

It can emulate the following...

65C102 (at various speeds)
Z80 (at various speeds)

I am looking to attach this to the external Tube port so that I can switch between the internal PiTubeDirect and this.

Battery Backed RAM Cartridge

I bought this a while ago and it allows for loading of 2 ROM images which are stored in battery backed RAM so can be re-programmed from the machine. By changing the switches you get 4 different banks of 2 ROM slots. You can also use a real ROM and activate that by changing a switch.

External DataCentre

This is my external DataCentre.

It will be replaced by the internal one on this machine once the cabling is complete.
The unit allows you to load disk images from a USB stick and provides 2 IDE hard disk slots on the back.

Here is the re-assembled machine. Next stop a new paint job.

Anyway that's my (pretty lame) effort this time round.
See you back in the Autumn.


RetroChallenge - 2018/04 - Day 21

Wakefield RISC OS Show

Took some of my kit off to the Wakefield RISC OS show as I managed to get a stand there again this year. Here is me with my BBC Master and a somewhat rare Acorn System 1.

(Picture taken by Arcadian (Dave) on

Had a great time meeting up with all the ABUG crowd, got some nice goodies on the charity stand and a few extra hardware items from various people who I'd ordered different projects from.

Met Rob Coleman who produces the VideoNula and was kind enough to replace mine as it had a missing pin. He also sorted me a load of cool stuff for it such as the "Shadow Of The Beast" scrolling demo and his latest spectrum emulator that uses custom video modes to provide spectrum accurate graphics (shown below). 

(Video by Rob Coleman showing his Spectrum Emulator for the BBC)

RetroChallenge - 2018/04

2018/04 RetroChallenge...

Well I'm already a week in and haven't even managed to have time to actually decide on a project this time round.

Pimped Out Master

I have several new bits of kit to potentially add to the BBC, my intention is to actually get round to doing the mods required and painting the case black.

So things that ideally need to be fitted...


This is a nice replacement board for the video ULA that allow the BBC to use and of 4096 colours in its pallet.
The kit also allows for hardware scrolling.

This is pretty straight forward to fit but I had an issue with one of the pins missing on the chip.
I've spoken to the guy who makes them and he's attending the Risc OS show this month so i'll take it along and see if he can sort it.
Apparently he's also added support for a BBC spectrum emulator so that the VideoNuLA can display the screen like the original spectrum.

DataCentre / BeebSCSI

I originally was going to have the DataCentre installed internally (which I may still do) but have recently got a new SCSI emulation card that allows the use of a SD card to be used as a hard disk.
I'm considering combining this with the GoTek floppy emulator which has a custom firmware that is pretty good.
I may connect this externally or perhaps install it inside the Beeb and connect the Wifi SD card / USB to allow remote loading of disk images.

Paint Job

Back at the last RetroChallenge I mentioned that I have some nice Vinyl paints that I want to customise the machine with.
The intention is to give it a black finish with a white BBC owl logo across the top.

Video Conversion Board

I have a VGA conversion board an would like to mount it inside with the VGA port accessible externally so that the Beeb can be plugged directly into a modern monitor.

Case Clips

As this is my main BBC and it will often require tinkering inside or maintenance then I'd like to put some kind of easy to open catches on the case.
The idea being that I can leave the screws out of the bottom to allow the top of the case to be opened (this is what it normally is like anyway) but be able to clip the top on to carry it.

Retro Challenge - 2017/10 - Day 31


Well didn't really manage to find the time to do anything on my project this time round. Various issues got in the way.

  • Work - Ended up using every spare moment to work on paid projects :(
  • House - We've only recently moved into a new house so there are loads of things that I need to do before our family arrive at Christmas.
    Things like running ethernet cable and setting up access points for the Wifi.
  • Required Items - As we've moved house most of the stuff I needed for my projects were in storage. Unfortuantly not near the house anymore (used to be just round the corner) so i've not had chance to visit the storage locker to get anything.
  • Power Supply - The power supply on the modem didn't work, i've ordered and received an new one but not had chance to use it.


I'm still wanting to sort out my machine once and for all so i'm hopefully going to try and continue with everything and hope that i've finished before the next Retro Challenge in April.

Anyway good to read everyone's blog and see the cool stuff that people have managed to created.

See you all next time in April (hopefully a bit more successful that time around).

Retro Challenge - 2017/10

2017/10 RetroChallenge...

Well work is probably going to get in the way of this months RetroChallenge, so I''m not aiming too high with my project this time round.

Pimped Out Master

I currently have a BBC Master on my desk but I'd like to fully pimp the machine out.

It uses an external DataCentre at the moment but I bought an internal one which I want to fit properly, I also have various other expansion cards etc that need to be fitted.

Back at the last RetroChallenge I mentioned that I have some nice Vinyl paints that I want to customise the machine with. The intention is to give it a black finish with a white BBC owl logo across the top.

Teletext Inserter

I have recently acquired a teletext inserter and initially managed to get it to output a default page.
Ideally if I have time I'd like to create some software to send pages to the unit so that I can create my own Teletext service.

Acoustic Modem

I've been looking for an acoustic modem for ages and they always seem to be in the USA and fetch silly prices on eBay.

Managed to get this one at a reasonable price (completely untested), so would like to wire it up the BBC and possibly dial some BBSs with it.

Already have a tone dial converted phone suitable for using with it.

Retro Challenge - 2017/04 - Day 30

Bye Bye RetroChallenge...

And to the end of another (pretty dismal) challenge.

Didn't get that far this time, managed to get a few things done but have hopefully laid the groundwork for some more development in a few weeks time at the ABUG meeting in Cambridge.
I intend to spend the entire weekend working on my project to get a decent demonstration system.

Retro Challenge - 2017/04 - Day 22

Wakefield Risc OS Show

Got up early as I was staying at the hotel. Wasn't feeling that hot as I'd stayed up drinking with a few of the BBC crowd that were staying at the hotel for the show.


Brought the boxes with all of my kit to my stand, unfortunately the lift in the hotel wasn't working so we had to climb 3 flights of stairs with everything. Luckily a very nice porter helped with some of the stuff.

Unpacked the Communicator and set it up with the monitor and put the PABX and modem for connecting to under the table hidden out of sight.

Spent the 2 hours before the show opened ensuring that the software was running, connecting my laptop to the hotel WIFI and pointing the dial up gateway to the server backend that sits on a VM in my Manchester data centre.

Tried various times to dial the modem and nothing was happening, the Communicator would go online but it hadn't dialled correctly. My friend Ryan then managed to find an option in the settings for using Tone dialling, we set the option and the thing dialled the modem correctly.

After a few more attempts we got a response from the server side. Unfortunately something was amiss, we were getting formatting missing on the screen.
I think this may be due to the FTDI cable I was using, I had issues with the USB modems that I previously used. I think there is some issue with the actual parity settings it uses VS the ones I've asked it to use. After a bit more fiddling we managed to connect it to CCL4 (a rather random telnet available ViewData BBS).


(Photo from


Quite a few people we interested in the machine, its a fairly obscure one that not many people had come across. I had a nice conversation with a guy from the Netherlands who is setting up a show in Holland and was looking for people to show items such as this.

Ian (BeebMaster) came over and spent a while figuring out the workings of the machine. It has an interesting set of applications that can be instanciated with a specific amount of memory and unlike the BBC you can switch between applications and they stay resident in memory. 

After taking a load of photos of the machine he ended up taking it apart so that he could get internal photos of the board etc.
We found some interesting things inside, the machine has 2 batteries (which I need to change) one I presume stores the settings not sure what the other is used for (you an store files in the memory so maybe it does that). There is also a pass through connector for a phone on the side but there is a removable panel that is in place so you can't see it.