"The N8VEM Single Board Computer (SBC) is a home brew Z80 small computer project. It is made in the style of vintage computers of the mid to late 1970's and early 1980's using a mix of classic and modern technologies.
Its purpose is to entertain through education. It is intended to be used to teach and promote principles of electronic computer design. It is a solely non-profit educational project and is not intended for any commercial application. The N8VEM SBC and related peripherals would be ideal as a school project or could be used to teach basic computer hardware and software principles."
(Taken from the N8VEM project website)
The dawn of personal computing/some history
The dawn of the personal computer revolution began in the mid 1970's. If you wanted to own your very own computer at home, you could purchase all the components in kit form, then you basically had to build it yourself.
This is where one William Gates and Paul Allen saw an opportunity and contacted the first computer kit making company to offer software (which they had not yet written ) for it, translating the BASIC programming language which had been written by two Dartmouth College professors and released into the public domain over ten years before. This BASIC interpretor for the hobby mail order computer kit was Microsoft's very first product.
So we have computers owned by individuals at home, and the first hobby software ( 4k basic, later 8k ).
A couple of years earlier Dr Gary Kildall a professor of computer science had developed some of the very first software, for microprocessors, including the CP/M operating system. CP/M was written for the same microchip that most of the hobby kits used and was later lisensed to run on these first personal computers, and so started the personal computer software industry .
Small and mediulm size businesses could now afford to run thier own computer and the CP/M operating system ran on all these systems becoming the defacto operating system of the day, with the first commercial microcomputer software running on this platform (the first proffessional wordprocessors, spreadsheets, databases, accounting packages and CAD programs ... Wordstar, multiplan, dBase (and cardbox:), Sage accounts and Autocad - all debuted on the 8bit (8080/Z80) CP/M platform.
Basically the roots of personal and business computing as we know it and of nearly all the personal and business software we take for granted today, come directly from these hobbyist systems pared with a professional operating system (CP/M), and software written for it.
The road to N8VEM
So fast forward to today and over the years many many people have built computers with the same chips used with the first personal computers (8080/Z80), these are some of the most numerous microchips in existance and are still made today in vast quantities. There are many such Z80 based projects on the net, they seemed almost a rite of initiation for a generation of geeks and nerds. The N8VEM is just another such project, but has expanded a pastime for knowlegable electonics enthusiasts who can solder pcb's in their sleep and program microchips for breakfast, into the realm of the keen mere mortal.
I fondly remember the golden years of my childhood. The year was 1977 and Star wars was playing at the cinema (and the Atari 2600 (woody) was launched, which i would later get one christmas) ). It was a magical time for me, as for any 7 year old kid, and it was also a magical time for those older kids who were just being washed by the first waves of the personal computer revolution.
In 1982 i was 12, as unknown to me the 16bit IBM PC platform was launched, to challenge the now dominant 8bit CP/M personal and businness world ( and Sir Clive Sinclair launched the 8bit ZX Spectrum home computer, which many of my friends would later own ).
By 1984/85 i was doing computer studies at school ( but still never owned my own computer, or became a computer geek ), in Europe Amstrad launched the 8bit PCW range of computers for home and small busineses (this a last stand for the professional 8bit CP/M computing platform in the face of the new IBM PC ) which was for very many the first professional computer they would own ( PC's were very expensive and still not common in Europe), business users were switching from thier old typewriters to taste for the first time professional wordprosessing on this machine ( along with all the accumulation of business software that would run on CP/M ), and before the IBM PC took a hold of the market even the smallest of businesses in the UK were becoming computerised with the last versions of 8bit CP/M that started life a decade earlier in America.
In my computer studies class of 1984/85 we were still using old 8bit Lynx and the odd BBC micro home computers ( IBM PC's would have been around £1000 at the time - and rare for home use). The generation that would go on to run today's computer industry, more than likely started learning on and programming computers such as these (computer studies was all about programming, and learning how the noughts and ones related to the electronics, and silicon chips, inside the box. Now it seems rather: how to operate one popular brand of wordprocessor or spreadsheet (not actually teaching the fundamentals of wordprocessing etc, and not learning anything much else about the vast intersting subject of computing ).
Over twenty years later, after missing out on actually having fun with computers i at last got my very own. It was an old Pentium 3 workstation, with a 14 inch CRT screen keyboard and mouse. Computing was still not much fun for me untill i got internet access. After reading of some history of the computer revolution that had passed me by, i came one day upon the N8VEM project. For the next few months i watched as from nowhere N8VEM ( yet another Z80 based computer project ) was born. I remember the very first time the CP/M operating system booted up on the little single board computer (there are very many boards now, a complete stand alone CP/M system in fact - and then some (and then some more....) plus hundreds of people involved with an ever expanding userbase and user innovations) the geek in me was finally awakened, and i knew i had to build one. Being a not for profit hobby/educational project the only real outlay is time, all the pieces are inexpensive and available.
To quote the N8VEM project page again:
"Low cost development and assembly by hobbyist amateurs is encouraged by using common tools such as 25 watt soldering iron, VOM, logic probe (optional), and common hand tools. An oscilloscope is recommended but not required. Some basic electronic skills are good but the Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs) are designed for relative beginners."
With only basic tools anyone can build the N8VEM SBC (or any of the other boards to make up a complete system) and together with a vibrant community of builders, to answer your questions and share in your build, thier is externsive documentation on the projects wiki.
I never thought learning about electronics, computer systems, and computer system software could be fun and rewarding, it is, but actually building circuits and tinkering about eventually to build your own computer system from scratch chip by chip; i think connects you with the spirit of the original personal computer revolution; whilst learning the roots of the technology bound world we live in today. Hey computers aren't scary atall, they really are fun!