While the rest of the world may be focusing on miniaturization, Harry Porter is headed in the opposite direction. A professor in computer sciences, Porter has a strong interest in showing just exactly how these systems work. To that end, he's built a very impressive relay computer, which occupies a place (make that a big place) of honor on his living room wall.
Harry proudly displaying his relay computer.
Porter's relay computer consists of four physical units: arithmetic logic, register, program control, and a sequencer unit. Each is housed in a nice wooden frame with a glass front for display. Everything is organized logically and LEDs are in place so you can actually see the data flow through the system while the 415 total relays emit a familiar and satisfying cacophony. You can see and hear it in the video below.
The specs, taken from Harry's documentation, are as follows:
Data Bus (8 bits)
Address Bus (16 bits)
All relays are identical (Four-Pole-Double-Throw, 12 Volts)
Max Power Consumption: Estimated 12 Amps @ 13.5 Volts (160 Watts)
Porter completed the computer in 2007. When I asked him if it still worked, he replied "Yes, it is still functional. But it doesn't get much use. I tend to read email on my iPad instead," which is completely understandable. It now waits on standby, ready to be powered on if an excuse presents itself.
Registers and switches.
Click the image above to view the entire slideshow of 17 images.
Programming is quite an arduous task that involves first selecting an address, then using switches to select the byte you wish to enter and then push that into the memory. Repeat this process over and over until you're ready to begin your computation. There are a few sample programs documented on Porter's site that demonstrate how the machine does simple addition, subtraction, and multiplication.
Harry has done a fantastic job of documenting the build. He shares not only a wonderful set of pictures of the process, but also PowerPoint presentations, schematics, and a 60-minute detailed breakdown of the relay computer's design.
I've been following passionate people doing home projects for years and years. This was one I saw a long time ago that I thought really deserved some fresh attention. There's just something so satisfying about hearing those mechanical switches clicking and clacking, I'm glad my laptop doesn't do that, but I kind of wish something in my house did!
Oh man, my co workers would kill me. I get aggressive with mechanical keyboards. By the end of a long sentence I'm furiously pounding on it just for the satisfaction of the RATA-TAT-TAT. You don't even want to see me use a typewriter with a manual carriage return.
I need to stay away from those for everyone's sake.
I always loved the sound of a keypunch. I had a friend who called them "pea-kunch machines" because that's the sound they make: p-kunch, p-kunch, p-kunch followed by the satisfying hiss and klunk-klunk as the card is released and a new one loaded.
Max obviously has not seen this yet....eat ya heart out Max!!! A serious labour of love though. I see he uses a 32K x 8 static ram chip for memory....cheating really, though it's excusable - if he did that with relays it would take up his whole lounge room. Pity he did not use ferrite core memory or something else from a bygone era for that.
This reminds me of the "BiTran 6" computer I used at Penn Technicial School. It used 7400 logic chips but was programed using binary. I remember for my senior project I programmed it to solve the quadratic equation. The good old days ....
Someone gave me one of those the other day...can't be that old as it has a PS2 connector. It was too nice to chuck, but if anyone wants it, let me know...you pay postage from Aussie (and they're not light!) I'd love to see it go to a good home.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.