For a while now I've been wanting to write a cycle-exact emulator for the original IBM PC and XT machines that are the direct ancestors of the machine I'm writing this on (and, almost certainly, the machine you're reading this on). I've written an 8088 emulator with cycle timings that I think are plausible but I have no idea if they're correct or not. The exact details of the timings don't seem to be published anywhere (at least not on the internet) so the only way to determine if they are correct is to compare against real hardware.
So, when I saw a cheap XT for sale on eBay recently, I made a spur-of-the-moment bid, and won it. It is a bit beaten up - the case was bent in one place, the speaker cone was falling off and the end of one the ISA slots was broken off. All these problems were easy to fix with a hammer and a bit of superglue, though. It lacks keyboard and monitor, which makes it rather difficult to do anything useful with it, but it did come with all sort of weird and wonderful cards:
- Hyundai E40080004 MDA card with 66Kb of RAM. It's all discrete logic apart from the CRTC, RAM and a ROM which I think is a character ROM rather than a BIOS ROM (though I could be wrong). The amount of memory makes me suspect it can do graphics, but I can't find any documentation - I'd probably have to reverse engineer a schematic to find out exactly what it's capable of.
- Tecmar Captain 200044 card with 384Kb RAM (bringing total to 640Kb), serial port, connector for a parallel port and possibly an RTC (it has a CR2032 battery on it anyway).
- AST 5251/11 - apparently this enables PCs to connect, via Twinax, to a 5251 terminal server. It has the largest DIP packaged IC I've ever seen - a Signetics N8X305N RISC Microprocessor running at 8MHz (16MHz crystal) and 96Kb of RAM for its own purposes.
- A generic serial+parallel card.
- IBM floppy and MFM hard drive controller cards.
- IBM serial card.
- PGS scan doubler II. It seems to be pretty rare, there's only one mention of it on Google and I've never heard of such a device being used with PCs before (though I understand they were more popular in the Amiga-verse). It's only uses the power and clock lines from the ISA bus - it has two CGA-style ports on the back, one for input and one for output. You loop the CGA card's output back into one of the ports, and the other one outputs a signal with twice the line rate (it buffers each line in its internal 2Kb RAM and outputs each one twice, at double the pixel rate). I'm guessing the output had to be a monitor with a CGA input which could run at VGA frequencies, which can't have been all that common.
It also comes with a floppy drive and a hard drive which makes the most horrendous metal-on-metal grinding sounds when it spins up and down (so I'll be very surprised if it still works).
This machine has clearly been a real working PC for someone rather than a perfectly preserved museum piece - it tells stories. At some point the original MDA card failed and was replaced with a clone, the RAM was upgraded, it's been used as a terminal for a mainframe, and at some point the owner read about this device that improves your video output, bought one, found it didn't work with his MDA card but just left it in there.
Due to lack of keyboard and monitor (neither my TV nor my VGA monitor can sync to MDA frequencies) I haven't got it to boot yet. I tried to use the scan doubler with the MDA and my VGA monitor (connecting the mono video signal via the red channel of the doubler) and the monitor was able to sync but the output was garbage - I guess the doubler is either broken or only works with CGA frequencies. If it does work with CGA then it'll be useful for seeing the TTL CGA output (though I'll have to put something together to convert the RGBI digital signals to analogue RGB - with proper fix up for colour 6 of course).
I ordered a CGA card but decided to see if I could jerry-rig something up in the meantime. I programmed my Arduino to pretend to be an XT keyboard and also the "manufacturing test device" that IBM used in their factories to load code onto the machine during early stage POST (it works by returning 65H instead of AAH in response to a keyboard reset). I then used this to reprogram the CRTC of the MDA to CGA frequencies (113 characters of 9 pixels at 16MHz pixel clock for 18 rows (14 displayed) of 14-scanline characters plus an extra 10 scanlines for a total of 262 scanlines). The sources for this are on github.
Next, I connected the hsync, vsync, video and intensity lines to a composite output stage like the one in the CGA card (it's just a transistor and a few resistors) and put some junk in video memory. Amazingly, it works - there is a barely legible picture. Even more amazingly, it is in colour! On the same breadboard I was doing this on, I had a Colpitts oscillator driving a 3.5795MHz (NTSC colour burst frequency) crystal from an earlier experiment (before my XT arrived I was trying to get colour TV output from my Arduino). This oscillator wasn't connected to anything, but the very fact that that frequency was bouncing around nearby was enough to turn off the colour killer circuit in the TV and allow it to interpret certain horizontal pixel patterns as colours.
The colours themselves aren't actually related to the picture in any useful way - the hsync and crystal aren't in sync so the phase (and hence the hues) drift over time. In fact, by applying slight heat and/or pressure to the crystal with my fingers, I can change the frequency slightly and make the hue phase drift rate faster or slower with respect to the frame rate, and even stop it altogether (though it's still not a multiple of the line rate so the colours form diagonal patterns).
The sync isn't quite right - because the hsync and vsync signals are just added together the TV loses horizontal sync for 16 lines or so during vsync and then spends half the picture trying to recover. Unfortunately the CRTC in the MDA card has a vertical sync pulse height fixed at 16 lines but it needs to be closer to 3 for NTSC so I haven't been able to get a stable signal even by XORing the signals like the CGA does. The CGA uses a 74LS175 to get a 3-line sync signal, but I don't have one of these to hand.
Here's the schematic for the circuit as I would have made it if I had the parts:
Unfortunately I haven't been able to continue the BIOS POST sequence after running this code - I tried jumping back into the BIOS at a couple of places but it just froze. I'll have to tinker with it some more to see if I can get it to work and determine where the POST is failing next.
I've determined that it should be possible for the XT to send data back over the keyboard line (the clock line is controllable by software). So I'm planning to do bidirectional communication between the XT and a host PC entirely over the keyboard port! I'm writing a tiny little OS kernel that will download a program over the keyboard port, run it, send the results back and then wait for another one.
Unfortunately my plans have been derailed because the power supply unit has failed. I noticed that the PSU fan wasn't spinning - I think that has caused some parts in the PSU to overheat. One resistor in there looked very burnt and the resistors for discharging the high-voltage smoothing capacitors were completely open circuit. I replaced all these but it's still not working. I've ordered a cheap ATX power supply and will be transplanting the guts into the XT PSU's box so that I can keep the big red switch.