In Soviet Russia, Computer Programs You

We admire [Alex Studer’s] approach to schoolwork. His final assignment in his history class was to do an open-ended research project on any topic and — this is key — using any medium. He’d recently watched a video about how Tetris came from the former Soviet Union, and adding in a little eBay research set out to build a period-accurate Soviet computer replica. The post covers the technical details, but if you want to read the historical aspects the school paper is also online.

The first decision was what CPU to use and [Alex] picked the U880 which is a Soviet Z80. All the usual parts you would use with a Z80 have U880 equivalents, so that fleshed out the rest of the design. There were a few concessions made. Instead of a bulky analog monitor, the replica uses an LCD display. Instead of an audio cassette recorder, the new machine uses a CompactFlash socket. We don’t think those are bad decisions. He also replaced the Soviet EPROMs with modern parts. Although the original parts appeared to program correctly, they were unreliable in operation. [Alex] theorizes that his programmer did not generate enough programming voltage to fully program the cells, so they would pass at the low speeds used by the programmer, but not work in the actual circuit.

One interesting lesson: the Soviet ICs have a 2.5mm pin spacing instead of 2.54mm! Socketed chips had enough leeway that you could force fit the parts, but for parts that soldered directly to the PCB, [Alex] built a dual footprint that could accept either spacing.

If you want to duplicate the machine, there are a few GitHub repos. There’s the hardware design, a custom Z80 assembler, firmware, and an emulator if you want to play with the machine virtually.

We’ve actually talked a lot about computers from the other side of the iron curtain. We’ve also seen some at some vintage computer festivals.


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