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I am not stupid, you know. They cannot make things like that yet.

20 November 2009 21:50

I've really enjoyed reading some of Matthew Garrett's entries about legacy PC hardware features - specifically the cute hack involving A20 and the keyboard controller. Reading things like that really takes me back.

I remember when the z80 was cutting edge, and I discovered you could switch to a whole new set of shadow registers via "exx" and "ex af,af'". I remember using undocumented opcodes, and even now I can assemble and disassemble simple z80 machine code. (Don't get me started on the speedlock protectors and their fiendish use of the R register; that'll stick in your mind if you cracked it. I did.)

I remember being introduced to the PC, seeing subdirectories appear in MS-DOS 2.0, network redirectors appearing in DOS 3.x, and support for big hard drives appearing in MS-DOS 4.0.

I remember the controvosy over the AARD code in the betas of Windows 3, and the focus that was given in the book "Undocumented DOS" which mostly focussed upon the "list of lists". (At that time I'd have been running GEM on an IBM XT with hercules (monochrome) graphics.)

I remember learning about that a .COM file was a flat image, limited to 64k which loaded at offset 100h, to accomodate the PSP (program segement prefix) for compatbility with CP/M (something I've never seen, never used, and known nothing about. I just know you could use the file control blocks to get simple wildcard handling for your programs "for free")

I wrote simple viral code which exploited this layout, appending new code to end of binary, replacing the first three bytes with a jump to the freshly added code. Later you could restore the original bytes back to their original contents and jump back to 100h (I even got the pun in the name of 40Hex magazine.)

I recall when COM files started to go out of fashion and you had to deal with relocation and segment fixups. When MZ was an important figure.

I even remember further back to when switching to protected mode was a hell of tripple-faults, switching back from protected mode to real mode was "impossible" and the delight to be had with the discovery and exploitation of "unreal mode".

All these things I remember .. and yet .. they're meaningless to most now, merely old history. Adults these days might have grown up and reached age 20 having always had Windows 95 - never having seen, used, or enjoyed MS-DOS.

How far have we come since then? In some ways not far at all. In other ways the rise of technology has been exponential.

Back then when I was doing things I'd not have dreamed I could update a webpage from a mobile phone whilst trapped upon a stalled train.

There are now more mobile phones than people in the UK. In some ways that's frightening - People miss the clear seperation between home & work for example - but in other ways .. liberation.

I have no predictions for the future, but it amazing how far we've come just in my lifetime; and largely without people noticing.

The industrial revolution? Did that happen with people mostly not noticing? Or was there more concious awareness? Food for thought.

ObFilm: Terminator

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Building a computer - part 1

11 July 2019 13:01

I've been tinkering with hardware for a couple of years now, most of this is trivial stuff if I'm honest, for example:

  • Wiring a display to a WiFi-enabled ESP8266 device.
    • Making it fetch data over the internet and display it.
  • Hooking up a temperature/humidity sensor to a device.
    • Submit readings to an MQ bus.

Off-hand I think the most complex projects I've built have been complex in terms of software. For example I recently hooked up a 933Mhz radio-receiver to an ESP8266 device, then had to reverse engineer the protocol of the device I wanted to listen for. I recorded a radio-burst using an SDR dongle on my laptop, broke the transmission into 1 and 0 manually, worked out the payload and then ported that code to the ESP8266 device.

Anyway I've decided I should do something more complex, I should build "a computer". Going old-school I'm going to stick to what I know best the Z80 microprocessor. I started programming as a child with a ZX Spectrum which is built around a Z80.

Initially I started with BASIC, later I moved on to assembly language mostly because I wanted to hack games for infinite lives. I suspect the reason I don't play video-games so often these days is because I'm just not very good without cheating ;)

Anyway the Z80 is a reasonably simple processor, available in a 40PIN DIP format. There are the obvious connectors for power, ground, and a clock-source to make the thing tick. After that there are pins for the address-bus, and pins for the data-bus. Wiring up a standalone Z80 seems to be pretty trivial.

Of course making the processor "go" doesn't really give you much. You can wire it up, turn on the power, and barring explosions what do you have? A processor executing NOP instructions with no way to prove it is alive.

So to make a computer I need to interface with it. There are two obvious things that are required:

  • The ability to get your code on the thing.
    • i.e. It needs to read from memory.
  • The ability to read/write externally.
    • i.e. Light an LED, or scan for keyboard input.

I'm going to keep things basic at the moment, no pun intended. Because I have no RAM, because I have no ROM, because I have no keyboard I'm going to .. fake it.

The Z80 has 40 pins, of which I reckon we need to cable up over half. Only the arduino mega has enough pins for that, but I think if I use a Mega I can wire it to the Z80 then use the Arduino to drive it:

  • That means the Arduino will generate a clock-signal to make the Z80 tick.
  • The arduino will monitor the address-bus
    • When the Z80 makes a request to read the RAM at address 0x0000 it will return something from its memory.
    • When the Z80 makes a request to write to the RAM at address 0xffff it will store it away in its memory.
  • Similarly I can monitor for requests for I/O and fake that.

In short the Arduino will run a sketch with a 1024 byte array, which the Z80 will believe is its memory. Via the serial console I can read/write to that RAM, or have the contents hardcoded.

I thought I was being creative with this approach, but it seems like it has been done before, numerous times. For example:

Anyway I've ordered a bunch of Z80 chips, and an Arduino mega (since I own only one Arduino, I moved on to ESP8266 devices pretty quickly), so once it arrives I'll document the process further.

Once it works I'll need to slowly remove the arduino stuff - I guess I'll start by trying to build an external RAM/ROM interface, or an external I/O circuit. But basically:

  • Hook the Z80 up to the Arduino such that I can run my own code.
  • Then replace the arduino over time with standalone stuff.

The end result? I guess I have no illusions I can connect a full-sized keyboard to the chip, and drive a TV. But I bet I could wire up four buttons and an LCD panel. That should be enough to program a game of Tetris in Z80 assembly, and declare success. Something like that anyway :)

Expect part two to appear after my order of parts arrives from China.

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Building a computer - part 2

18 July 2019 13:01

My previous post on the subject of building a Z80-based computer briefly explained my motivation, and the approach I was going to take.

This post describes my progress so far:

  • On the hardware side, zero progress.
  • On the software-side, lots of fun.

To recap I expect to wire a Z80 microprocessor to an Arduino (mega). The arduino will generate a clock-signal which will make the processor "tick". It will also react to read/write attempts that the processor makes to access RAM, and I/O devices.

The Z80 has a neat system for requesting I/O, via the use of the IN and OUT instructions which allow the processor to read/write a single byte to one of 255 connected devices.

To experiment, and for a memory recap I found a Z80 assembler, and a Z80 disassembler, both packaged for Debian. I also found a Z80 emulator, which I forked and lightly-modified.

With the appropriate tools available I could write some simple code. I implemented two I/O routines in the emulator, one to read a character from STDIN, and one to write to STDOUT:

IN A, (1)   ; Read a character from STDIN, store in A-register.
OUT (1), A  ; Write the character in A-register to STDOUT

With those primitives implemented I wrote a simple script:

;  Simple program to upper-case a string
org 0
   ; show a prompt.
   ld a, '>'
   out (1), a
   ; read a character
   in a,(1)
   ; eof?
   cp -1
   jp z, quit
   ; is it lower-case?  If not just output it
   cp 'a'
   jp c,output
   cp 'z'
   jp nc, output
   ; convert from lower-case to upper-case.  yeah.  math.
   sub a, 32
   ; output the character
   out (1), a
   ; repeat forever.
   jr start
   ; terminate

With that written it could be compiled:

 $ z80asm ./sample.z80 -o ./sample.bin

Then I could execute it:

 $ echo "Hello, world" | ./z80emulator ./sample.bin
 Testing "./sample.bin"...

 1150 cycle(s) emulated.

And that's where I'll leave it for now. When I have the real hardware I'll hookup some fake-RAM containing this program, and code a similar I/O handler to allow reading/writing to the arduino's serial-console. That will allow the same code to run, unchanged. That'd be nice.

I've got a simple Z80-manager written, but since I don't have the chips yet I can only compile-test it. We'll see how well I did soon enough.



Building a computer - part 3

1 August 2019 13:01

This is part three in my slow journey towards creating a home-brew Z80-based computer. My previous post demonstrated writing some simple code, and getting it running under an emulator. It also described my planned approach:

  • Hookup a Z80 processor to an Arduino Mega.
  • Run code on the Arduino to emulate RAM reads/writes and I/O.
  • Profit, via the learning process.

I expect I'll have to get my hands-dirty with a breadboard and naked chips in the near future, but for the moment I decided to start with the least effort. Erturk Kocalar has a website where he sells "shields" (read: expansion-boards) which contain a Z80, and which is designed to plug into an Arduino Mega with no fuss. This is a simple design, I've seen a bunch of people demonstrate how to wire up by hand, for example this post.

Anyway I figured I'd order one of those, and get started on the easy-part, the software. There was some sample code available from Erturk, but it wasn't ideal from my point of view because it mixed driving the Z80 with doing "other stuff". So I abstracted the core code required to interface with the Z80 and packaged it as a simple library.

The end result is that I have a z80 retroshield library which uses an Arduino mega to drive a Z80 with something as simple as this:

#include <z80retroshield.h>

// Our program, as hex.
unsigned char rom[32] =
    0x3e, 0x48, 0xd3, 0x01, 0x3e, 0x65, 0xd3, 0x01, 0x3e, 0x6c, 0xd3, 0x01,
    0xd3, 0x01, 0x3e, 0x6f, 0xd3, 0x01, 0x3e, 0x0a, 0xd3, 0x01, 0xc3, 0x16,

// Our helper-object
Z80RetroShield cpu;

// RAM I/O function handler.
char ram_read(int address)
    return (rom[address]) ;

// I/O function handler.
void io_write(int address, char byte)
    if (address == 1)

// Setup routine: Called once.
void setup()

    // Setup callbacks.
    // We have to setup a RAM-read callback, otherwise the program
    // won't be fetched from RAM and executed.

    // Then we setup a callback to be executed every time an "out (x),y"
    // instruction is encountered.

    // Configured.
    Serial.println("Z80 configured; launching program.");

// Loop function: Called forever.
void loop()
    // Step the CPU.

All the logic of the program is contained in the Arduino-sketch, and all the use of pins/ram/IO is hidden away. As a recap the Z80 will make requests for memory-contents, to fetch the instructions it wants to execute. For general purpose input/output there are two instructions that are used:

IN A, (1)   ; Read a character from STDIN, store in A-register.
OUT (1), A  ; Write the character in A-register to STDOUT

Here 1 is the I/O address, and this is an 8 bit number. At the moment I've just configured the callback such that any write to I/O address 1 is dumped to the serial console.

Anyway I put together a couple of examples of increasing complexity, allowing me to prove that RAM read/writes work, and that I/O reads and writes work.

I guess the next part is where I jump in complexity:

  • I need to wire a physical Z80 to a board.
  • I need to wire a PROM to it.
    • This will contain the program to be executed - hardcoded.
  • I need to provide power, and a clock to make the processor tick.

With a bunch of LEDs I'll have a Z80-system running, but it'll be isolated and hard to program. (Since I'll need to reflash the RAM/ROM-chip).

The next step would be getting it hooked up to a serial-console of some sort. And at that point I'll have a genuinely programmable standalone Z80 system.

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Having fun with CP/M on a Z80 single-board computer.

17 April 2021 14:00

In the past, I've talked about building a Z80-based computer. I made some progress towards that goal, in the sense that I took the initial (trivial steps) towards making something:

  • I built a clock-circuit.
  • I wired up a Z80 processor to the clock.
  • I got the thing running an endless stream of NOP instructions.
    • No RAM/ROM connected, tying all the bus-lines low, meaning every attempted memory-read returned 0x00 which is the Z80 NOP instruction.

But then I stalled, repeatedly, at designing an interface to RAM and ROM, so that it could actually do something useful. Over the lockdown I've been in two minds about getting sucked back down the rabbit-hole, so I compromised. I did a bit of searching on tindie, and similar places, and figured I'd buy a Z80-based single board computer. My requirements were minimal:

  • It must run CP/M.
  • The source-code to "everything" must be available.
  • I want it to run standalone, and connect to a host via a serial-port.

With those goals there were a bunch of boards to choose from, rc2014 is the standard choice - a well engineered system which uses a common backplane and lets you build mini-boards to add functionality. So first you build the CPU-card, then the RAM card, then the flash-disk card, etc. Over-engineered in one sense, extensible in another. (There are some single-board variants to cut down on soldering overhead, at a cost of less flexibility.)

After a while I came across https://8bitstack.co.uk/, which describes a simple board called the the Z80 playground.

The advantage of this design is that it loads code from a USB stick, making it easy to transfer files to/from it, without the need for a compact flash card, or similar. The downside is that the system has only 64K RAM, meaning it cannot run CP/M 3, only 2.2. (CP/M 3.x requires more RAM, and a banking/paging system setup to swap between pages.)

When the system boots it loads code from an EEPROM, which then fetches the CP/M files from the USB-stick, copies them into RAM and executes them. The memory map can be split so you either have ROM & RAM, or you have just RAM (after the boot the ROM will be switched off). To change the initial stuff you need to reprogram the EEPROM, after that it's just a matter of adding binaries to the stick or transferring them over the serial port.

In only a couple of hours I got the basic stuff working as well as I needed:

  • A z80-assembler on my Linux desktop to build simple binaries.
  • An installation of Turbo Pascal 3.00A on the system itself.
  • An installation of FORTH on the system itself.
    • Which is nice.
  • A couple of simple games compiled from Pascal
    • Snake, Tetris, etc.
  • The Zork trilogy installed, along with Hitchhikers guide.

I had some fun with a CP/M emulator to get my hand back in things before the board arrived, and using that I tested my first "real" assembly language program (cls to clear the screen), as well as got the hang of using the wordstar keyboard shortcuts as used within the turbo pascal environment.

I have some plans for development:

  • Add command-line history (page-up/page-down) for the CP/M command-processor.
  • Add paging to TYPE, and allow terminating with Q.

Nothing major, but fun changes that won't be too difficult to implement.

Since CP/M 2.x has no concept of sub-directories you end up using drives for everything, I implemented a "search-path" so that when you type "FOO" it will attempt to run "A:FOO.COM" if there is no file matching on the current-drive. That's a nicer user-experience at all.

I also wrote some Z80-assembly code to search all drives for an executable, if not found in current drive and not already qualified. Remember CP/M doesn't have a concept of sub-directories) that's actually pretty useful:


I've also written some other trivial assembly language tools, which was surprisingly relaxing. Especially once I got back into the zen mode of optimizing for size.

I forked the upstream repository, mostly to tidy up the contents, rather than because I want to go into my own direction. I'll keep the contents in sync, because there's no point splitting a community even further - I guess there are fewer than 100 of these boards in the wild, probably far far fewer!



Writing a text-based adventure game for CP/M

26 April 2021 18:00

In my previous post I wrote about how I'd been running CP/M on a Z80-based single-board computer.

I've been slowly working my way through a bunch of text-based adventure games:

  • The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy
  • Zork 1
  • Zork 2
  • Zork 3

Along the way I remembered how much fun I used to have doing this in my early teens, and decided to write my own text-based adventure.

Since I'm not a masochist I figured I'd write something with only three or four locations, and solicited facebook for ideas. Shortly afterwards a "plot" was created and I started work.

I figured that the very last thing I wanted to be doing was to be parsing text-input with Z80 assembly language, so I hacked up a simple adventure game in C. I figured if I could get the design right that would ease the eventual port to assembly.

I had the realization pretty early that using a table-driven approach would be the best way - using structures to contain the name, description, and function-pointers appropriate to each object for example. In my C implementation I have things that look like this:

{name: "generator",
 desc: "A small generator.",
 use: use_generator,
 use_carried: use_generator_carried,
 get_fn: get_generator,
 drop_fn: drop_generator},

A bit noisy, but simple enough. If an object cannot be picked up, or dropped, the corresponding entries are blank:

{name: "desk",
 desc: "",
 edesc: "The desk looks solid, but old."},

Here we see something that is special, there's no description so the item isn't displayed when you enter a room, or LOOK. Instead the edesc (extended description) is available when you type EXAMINE DESK.

Anyway over a couple of days I hacked up the C-game, then I started work porting it to Z80 assembly. The implementation changed, the easter-eggs were different, but on the whole the two things are the same.

Certainly 99% of the text was recycled across the two implementations.

Anyway in the unlikely event you've got a craving for a text-based adventure game I present to you: