Switch It Up with a PiDP-10

The PiDP-10 is a modern reproduction of the PDP-10 that is powered by a Raspberry Pi and has a front panel with tons of LEDs and switches.

Nick Bild
11 days ago β€’ Retro Tech
This modern PDP-10 reproduction is powered by a Raspberry Pi 5 (πŸ“·: O. Vermeulen)

Those of us that have grown up with computers are well aware that the amount of computing power that is now available to us would have seemed impossibly extravagant even a decade or two ago. This fact might even make us feel a little bit embarrassed when we use all that power for something trivial like playing a video game. But this is nothing new. Even in the very early days of digital computing in the 1960s, before the home computer revolution took off, people were playing Colossal Cave Adventure, Dungeon, or Spacewar! on a beastly (for the time) Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-10 in a university lab.

The computer hardware from this era is fascinating. It is accessible in a way that a modern computer never could be β€” the discrete through-hole chips and large PCB traces make them easy to understand, and schematics were even generally available. But if you want to play with a PDP-10 today, it will be difficult. Much of the aging hardware is starting to fail, and buying a complete unit can be very expensive. And even if you get your hands on one, the old switch panel interfaces and other oddities can make them seem very foreign to a modern computer user.

To allow more of us to experiment with this technology, Oscar Vermeulen has created a modern reproduction of the PDP-10 called the PiDP-10. Underneath the hood, this modern imagination of the computer is completely different β€” it is powered by a Raspberry Pi single-board computer β€” but the exterior of the machine gives an authentic experience with loads of blinking lights and switches. And of course, software is also included that enables the Raspberry Pi to emulate the functionality of a PDP-10, so as long as you do not look too closely, you will feel like you are working with this legendary computer of the 1960s.

The PiDP-10 comes in the form of a kit, and there is quite a lot to it, so expect to spend a few days of free time putting one together. It is designed for use with a Raspberry Pi 5, but you can probably get other models to work as well if you are determined to do so. The Raspberry Pi runs the SimH emulator, which emulates the PDP-10 (and also lots of other early computers). Most of the kit is really about the distinctive case of this unique machine. It is quite well done too β€” the case is injection molded, so there are no rough edges from a shoddy 3D printing job anywhere to be found. With well over 100 LEDs, and nearly as many switches, you will either find yourself enthralled or horrified by the user interfaces of yesteryear.

Aside from being educational and a ton of fun to play with, the PiDP-10 officially gets my unofficial award for the coolest Raspberry Pi case ever. It is not to be missed, would look great on any desk, and is sure to spark lots of conversations. The first batch of kits sold out earlier this year, but if there is enough interest, there will likely to be another production run to come. The cost of a kit is $370, and if you want to skip assembly, add another $125.

Nick Bild
R&D, creativity, and building the next big thing you never knew you wanted are my specialties.
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