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Considering Unexplored Products of the Past: Emulating an Expansion

In the last couple of years, possibly in common with quite a few other people, certainly people of my vintage, and undoubtedly those also interested in retrocomputing, I have found myself revisiting certain aspects of my technological past. Fortunately, sites like the Internet Archive make this very easy indeed, allowing us to dive into publications from earlier eras and to dredge up familiar and not so familiar magazine titles and other documentation. And having pursued my retrocomputing interest for a while, participating in forums, watching online videos, even contributing to new software and hardware developments, I have found myself wanting to review some of the beliefs and perceptions that I and other people have had of the companies and products we grew up with.

One of the products of personal interest to me is the computer that got me and my brother started with writing programs (as well as playing games): the Acorn Electron, a product of Acorn Computers of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Much can be said about the perceived chronology of this product’s development and introduction, the actual chronology, and its impact on its originator and on wider society, but that surely deserves a separate treatment. What I can say is that reviewing the archives and other knowledge available to us now can give a deeper understanding of the processes involved in the development of the Electron, the technological compromises made, and the corporate strategy that led to its creation and eventually its discontinuation.

By Bilby - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

The Acorn Electron
(Picture attribution: By BilbyOwn work, CC BY 3.0, Link)

It has been popular to tell simplistic narratives about Acorn Computers, to reduce its history to a few choice moments as the originator of the BBC Microcomputer and the ARM processor, but to do so is to neglect a richer and far more interesting story, even if the fallibility of some of the heroic and generally successful characters involved may be exposed by telling some of that story. And for those who wonder how differently some aspects of computing history might have turned out, exploring that story and the products involved can be an adventure in itself, filling in the gaps of our prior experiences with new insights, realisations and maybe even glimpses into opportunities missed and what might have been if things had played out differently.

At the Rabbit Hole

Reading about computing history is one thing, but this tale is about actually doing things with old software, emulation, and writing new software. It started off with a discussion about the keyboard shortcuts for a word processor and the differences between the keyboards on the Acorn Electron and its higher-specification predecessor, the BBC Microcomputer. Having acquainted myself with the circuitry of the Electron, how its keyboard is wired up, and how the software accesses it, I was obviously intrigued by these apparent differences, but I was also intrigued by the operation of the word processor in question, Acornsoft’s VIEW.

Back in the day, as people like to refer to the time when these products were first made available, such office or productivity applications were just beyond my experience. Although it was slightly fascinating to read about them, most of my productive time was spent writing programs, mostly trying to write games. I had actually seen an office suite written by Psion on the ACT Sirius 1 in the early 1980s, but word processors were the kind of thing that people used in offices or, at the very least, by people who had a printer so that they could print the inevitable letters that everyone would be needing to write.

Firing up an Acorn Electron emulator, specifically Elkulator, I discovered that one of the participants in the discussion was describing keyboard shortcuts that didn’t match up to those that were described in a magazine article from the era, these appearing correct as I tried them out for myself. It turned out that the discussion participant in question was using the BBC Micro version of VIEW on the Electron and was working around the mismatch in keyboard layouts. Although all of this was much ado about virtually nothing, it did two things. Firstly, it made me finally go in and fix Elkulator’s keyboard configuration dialogue, and secondly, it made me wonder how convenient it would be to explore old software in a productive way in an emulator.

Reconciling Keyboards

Having moved to Norway many years ago now, I use a Norwegian keyboard layout, and this has previously been slightly problematic when using emulators for older machines. Many years ago, I used and even contributed some minor things to another emulator, ElectrEm, which had a nice keyboard configuration dialogue. The Electron’s keyboard corresponds to certain modern keyboards pretty well, at least as far as the alphanumeric keys are concerned. More challenging are the symbols and control-related keys, in particular the Electron’s special Caps Lock/Function key which sits where many people now have their Tab key.

Obviously, there is a need to be able to tell an emulator which keys on a modern keyboard are going to correspond to the keys on the emulated machine. Being derived from an emulator for the BBC Micro, however, Elkulator’s keyboard configuration dialogue merely presented a BBC Micro keyboard on the screen and required the user to guess which “Beeb” key might correspond to an Electron one. Having put up with this situation for some time, I finally decided to fix this once and for all. The process of doing so is not particularly interesting, so I will spare you the details of doing things with the Allegro toolkit and the Elkulator source code, but I was mildly pleased with the result:

The revised keyboard configuration dialogue in Elkulator.

The revised keyboard configuration dialogue in Elkulator.

By also adding support for redefining the Break key in a sensible way, I was also finally able to choose a key that desktop environments don’t want to interfere with: F12 might work for Break, but Ctrl-F12 makes KDE/Plasma do something I don’t want, and yet Ctrl-Break is quite an important key combination when using an Electron or BBC Micro. Why Break isn’t a normal key on these machines is another story in itself, but here is an example of redefining it and even allowing multiple keys on a modern keyboard to act as Break on the emulated computer:

Redefining the Break key in Elkulator.

Redefining the Break key in Elkulator.

Being able to confidently choose and use keys made it possible to try out VIEW in a more natural way. But this then led to another issue: how might I experiment with such software productively? It would be good to write documents and to be able to extract them from the emulator, rather than see them disappear when the emulator is closed.

Real and Virtual Machines

One way to get text out of a system, whether it is a virtual system like the emulated Electron or a real machine, is to print it. I vaguely remembered some support for printing from Elkulator and was reminded by my brother that he had implemented such support himself a while ago as a quick way of getting data out of the emulated system. But I also wanted to be able to get data into the emulated system as well, and the parallel interface typically used by the printer is not bidirectional on the Electron. So, I would need to look further for a solution.

It is actually the case that Elkulator supports reading from and writing to disk (or disc) images. The unexpanded Electron supports read/write access to cassettes (or tapes), but Elkulator does not support writing to tapes, probably because the usability considerations are rather complicated: one would need to allow the user to control the current position on a tape, and all this would do is to remind everyone how inconvenient tapes are. Meanwhile, writing to disk images would be fairly convenient within the emulator, but then one would need to use tools to access the files within the images outside the emulator.

Some emulators for various systems also support the notion of a host filesystem (or filing system) where some special support has been added to make the emulated machine see another peripheral and to communicate with it, this peripheral really being a program on the host machine (the machine that is running the emulator). I could have just written such support, although it would also have needed some software support written for the emulated machine as well, but this approach would have led me down a path of doing something specific to emulation. And I have a principle of sorts which is that if I am going to change the way an emulated machine behaves, it has to be rooted in some kind of reality and not just enhance the emulated machine in a way that the original, “real” machine could not have been.

Building on Old Foundations

As noted earlier, I have an interest in the way that old products were conceived and the roles for which those products were intended by their originators. The Electron was largely sold as an unexpanded product, offering only power, display and cassette ports, with a general-purpose expansion connector being the gateway to anything else that might have been added to the system later. This was perceived somewhat negatively when the machine was launched because it was anticipated that buyers would probably, at the very least, want to plug joysticks into the Electron to play games. Instead, Acorn offered an expansion unit, the Plus 1, that cost another £60 which provided joystick, printer and cartridge connectors.

But this flexibility in expanding the machine meant that it could have been used as the basis for a fairly diverse range of specialised products. In fact, one of the Acorn founders, Chris Curry, enthused about the Electron as a platform for such products, and one such product did actually make it to market, in a way: the BT Merlin M2105 messaging terminal. This terminal combined the Electron with an expansion unit containing circuitry for communicating over a telephone line, a generic serial communications port, a printer port, as well as speech synthesis circuitry and a substantial amount of read-only memory (ROM) for communications software.

Back in the mid-1980s, telecommunications (or “telecoms”) was the next big thing, and enthusiasm for getting a modem and dialling up some “online” service or other (like Prestel) was prevalent in the computing press. For businesses and institutions, there were some good arguments for adopting such technologies, but for individuals the supposed benefits were rather dulled by the considerable costs of acquiring the hardware, buying subscriptions, and the notoriously high telephone call rates of the era. Only the relatively wealthy or the dedicated few pursued this side of data communications.

The M2105 reportedly did some service in the healthcare sector before being repositioned for commercial applications. Along with its successor product, the Acorn Communicator, it enjoyed a somewhat longer lifespan in certain enterprises. For the standard Electron and its accompanying expansions, support for basic communications capabilities was evidently considered important enough to be incorporated into the software of the Plus 1 expansion unit, even though the Plus 1 did not provide any of the specific hardware capabilities for communication over a serial link or a telephone line.

It was this apparently superfluous software capability that I revisited when I started to think about getting files in and out of the emulator. When emulating an Electron with Plus 1, this serial-capable software is run by the emulator, just as it is by a real Electron. On a real system of this kind, a cartridge could be added that provides a serial port and the necessary accompanying circuitry, and the system would be able to drive that hardware. Indeed, such cartridges were produced decades ago. So, if I could replicate the functionality of a cartridge within the emulator, making some code that pretends to be a serial communications chip (or UART) that has been interfaced to the Electron, then I would in principle be able to set up a virtual serial connection between the emulated Electron and my modern host computer.

Emulated Expansions

Modifying Elkulator to add support for serial communications hardware was fairly straightforward, with only a few complications. Expansion hardware on the Electron is generally accessible via a range of memory addresses that actually signal peripherals as opposed to reading and writing memory. The software provided by the Plus 1 expansion unit is written to expect the serial chip to be accessible via a range of memory locations, with the serial chip accepting values sent to those locations and producing values from those locations on request. The “memory map” through which the chip is exposed in the Electron corresponds directly to the locations or registers in the serial chip – the SCN2681 dual asynchronous receiver/transmitter (DUART) – as described by its datasheet.

In principle, all that is needed is to replicate the functionality described by the datasheet. With this done, the software will drive the chip, the emulated chip will do what is needed, and the illusion will be complete. In practice, a certain level of experimentation is needed to fill in the gaps left by the datasheet and any lack of understanding on the part of the implementer. It did help that the Plus 1 software has been disassembled – some kind of source code regenerated from the binary – so that the details of its operation and its expectations of the serial chip’s operation can be established.

Moreover, it is possible to save a bit of effort by seeing which features of the chip have been left unused. However, some unused features can be provided with barely any extra effort: the software only drives one serial port, but the chip supports two in largely the same way, so we can keep support for two just in case there is a need in future for such capabilities. Maybe someone might make a real serial cartridge with two ports and want to adapt the existing software, and they could at least test that software under emulation before moving to real hardware.

It has to be mentioned that the Electron’s operating system, known as the Machine Operating System or MOS, is effectively extended by the software provided in the Plus 1 unit. Even the unexpanded machine provides the foundations for adding serial communications and printing capabilities in different ways, and the Plus 1 software merely plugs into that framework. A different kind of serial chip would be driven by different software but it would plug into the same framework. At no point does anyone have to replace the MOS with a patched version, which seems to be the kind of thing that happens with some microcomputers from the same era.

Ultimately, what all of this means is that having implemented the emulated serial hardware, useful things can already be done with it within the bare computing environment provided by the MOS. One can set the output stream to use the serial port and have all the text produced by the system and programs sent over the serial connection. One can select the serial port for the input stream and send text to the computer instead of using the keyboard. And printing over the serial connection is also possible by selecting the appropriate printer type using a built-in system command.

In Elkulator, I chose to expose the serial port via a socket connection, with the emulator binding to a Unix domain socket on start-up. I then wrote a simple Python program to monitor the socket, to show any data being sent from the emulator and to send any input from the terminal to the emulator. This permitted the emulated machine to be operated from a kind of remote console and for the emulated machine to be able to print to this console. At last, remote logins are possible on the Electron! Of course, such connectivity was contemplated and incorporated from the earliest days of these products.

Filing Options

If the goal of all of this had been to facilitate transfers to and from the emulated machine, this might have been enough, but a simple serial connection is not especially convenient to use. Although a method of squirting a file into the serial link at the Electron could be made convenient for the host computer, at the other end one has to have a program to do something with that file. And once the data has arrived, would it not be most convenient to be able to save that data as a file? We just end up right back where we started: having some data inside the Electron and nowhere to put it! Of course, we could enable disk emulation and store a file on a virtual disk, but then it might just have been easier to make disk image handling outside the emulator more convenient instead.

It seemed to me that the most elegant solution would be to make the serial link act as the means through which the Electron accesses files. That instead of doing ad-hoc transfers of data, such data would be transferred as part of operations that are deliberately accessing files. Such ambitions are not unrealistic, and here I could draw on my experience with the platform, having acquired the Acorn Electron Advanced User Guide many, many years ago, in which there are details of implementing filing system ROMs. Again, the operating system had been designed to be extended in order to cover future needs, and this was one of them.

In fact, I had not been the only one to consider a serial filing system, and I had been somewhat aware of another project to make software available via a serial link to the BBC Micro. That project had been motivated by the desire to be able to get software onto that computer where no storage devices were otherwise available, even performing some ingenious tricks to transfer the filing system software to the machine and to have that software operate from RAM. It might have been tempting merely to use this existing software with my emulated serial port, to get it working, and then to get back to trying out applications, loading and saving, and to consider my work done. But I had other ideas in mind…