Altair Front Panel Tutorials | Hackaday
If you’re not old enough to remember when computers had front panels, like [Patrick Jackson] discovered after building an Altair 8800 replica, their operation can be a bit impenetrable. After realizing it, he did a pair of videos showing the basics, then progressing to a program to add two numbers.
Even when the Altair was new, the days of the front panels were numbered. Inexpensive terminals were on the way, and MITS quickly released a “turnkey” system that did not have a front panel. But anyone who had used a minicomputer from the late 1960s or early 1970s really thought a front panel was needed.
You might never program an Altair through the front panel, but it’s still an interesting glimpse into what computing looked like just a few decades ago. While you might think the front panel was just a curiosity, it was not uncommon to have to manually enter a bootloader program so that you could then load other software – often a better bootloader. – from paper or magnetic tape. Some computers even had the first bootloader code printed on the front panel for reference.
A front panel can also help you debug programs and hardware issues since you are probably looking directly at the bus in a real computer. Of course, with an emulator, the emulator just drives the front panel to pretend, but it still works the same way.
We did our own front panel tutorial for the PDP / 8. The operation is similar, but not exactly the same. The BLUE computer’s front panel was especially fun as it used the limited lights and switches available on the FPGA board it lived on. You can see it in a video of this article on the real world implementation of an educational fake computer.