How I built my first computer


Assembled FIGnition (right) shortly after boot (left, my Android tablet displaying documentation)

I just finished building a computer — a FIGnition single-board, 8-bit microcomputer kit. You can think of it as like the Heathkits of old, only about the size of a credit card and much resembling a Raspberry Pi.

There’s a bit of a paradox here. The Raspberry Pi costs about the same as a FIGnition — US $35 — and is meant for education. Yet it comes preassembled because it is literally about 10,000 times more complex than a FIGnition (five orders of magnitude). On the third hand that grows out of the center of my forehead, I love the Pi and have two of them. They are modern computers and the FIGnition is not — at least, it doesn’t feel like one.

Why did I buy a FIGnition, then? I wanted something I could build myself that was simple enough to understand thoroughly. The fact it boots into Forth also attracted me strongly — a FIGnition is probably the closest thing I can afford to a Jupiter Ace any time soon.

It took me, a complete newbie at through-hole printed circuit board soldering, six hours over two days to assemble the board with the expert advice and troubleshooting of my friend Tim Schutz. Half an hour was then devoted to a break, per the instructions, and an hour to testing by eye and with a multimeter. (Tim advised skipping the hundreds of complicated meter tests in the instructions and focusing on the basics — it’s only a $35 kit computer, after all.) Total build/rest/test time was 7.5 hours. If you’re already an electronics person, it will take much less for you.

After testing the unit, we plugged it into an old CRT TV and powered it on. The FIGnition welcome screen flashed by too fast to capture with a camera, then the Forth prompt. (See the photo above.)

We plinked around with the built-in chord keyboard for a minute and then, after Tim left, I ran most of the diagnostics — everything was OK. I didn’t take the last step, upgrading the firmware, because there hasn’t been a new firmware version since 2012, and I didn’t want to risk pointlessly bricking something I had just spent almost eight hours building.

I plan to keep working with this device and learning about it. The website has a great little knot of pages called “Understand It” that explains many of the hardware and software details. I also plan to extend my Forth skills — most of which come from cursory work with Jupiter Ace emulators, Wikireader, and Open Firmware — just because Forth is an interesting language, not because I ever expect to get a job programming in it. I’ll also blog about it in whatever time I have left over…


3 thoughts on “How I built my first computer

  1. Forth and a chording keyboard? I love it! Looks like a very interesting project.

    This weekend I was really gratified to see that the local Microcenter has set up a new deaprtment with electronics kits, parts, and various robotics paraphernalia. I like this direction.

    For the moment, though, my immediate ambitions are nothing more grandiose than finding a decent case for my Pi.


    • By the way, the chording keyboard is the two rows of four buttons on the far side of the board in this photo. You can see them easily if you magnify the picture in your browser.


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