Control a Macintosh Classic CRT with a BeagleBone Black – Intro

Almost one year ago I found an old Macintosh Classic, produced in the 1990’s in a basement. I bought it from the guy who used to own it and he told me, that he doesn’t know whether it is working or not and that it was standing there for about 20 years. Needless to say that it was in a pretty bad shape. After it arrived at my apartment, I immediately plugged it in and switched it on. Once the screen came on, it was pretty disappointing: It just displayed a checkerboard, which seems to be a pretty common issue with these models. This problem is caused by a variety of issues.

Some of them are:

Electrolytic capacitors, that were originally fitted, can leak and cause short circuits on the logic board. Cleaning the circuit board with acetone (or if you don’t have any with clean water and soap. But be aware that this ca lead to corrosion) can help. But it didn’t in my case. Also recapping didn’t solve the problem.

Another common solution ist to remove and re-fit the RAM extension card. That didn’t help either.

This problem can also be caused by faulty ROM or RAM chips. Both must be replaced and cannot be repaired at home.

In my case the on-board battery, which was still the original one from the early 90’s, leaked on the circuit board, causing the copper traces to dissolve. It also burned a huge hole into the logic board’s top layer and some of the underlying layers.

Image 1: The area marked with ‘1’ was completely eaten up by the acid, the vias in area 2 were not connected any more.

I tried to repair it by re-wiring the connections manually but I soon realized that this won’t be very easy and would take a very long time.

So i threw the ol’ Macintosh into a corner and forgot about it for roughly ten months. Some weeks ago I thought about bringing it back to life. But I did not want to buy a new logic board. I wanted to build a modern computer into the old case. I googled some projects which tried to do the same thing, but they were not good enough for me. Most projects simply removed the old monochrome (black/white) CRT display that was in the original Macintosh. But I absolutely wanted to keep that, because this is, what gives this little machine its soul and the characteristic flair that comes with using an old machine. So I was sitting there with absolutely no idea how to use the CRT and I had to come up with an idea.

First I looked up some technical documents that (luckily) existed for the Macintosh. These documents were made for technicians to repair faulty hardware and for hardware manufacturers. It contained a section about the video unit and about CRT timings. I’ve never seen something like this before, so this was absolutely new for me. But it was pretty easy to understand, because it’s basically following the rules of VGA. So what I had to do was to build my own VGA hardware to talk to the Macintosh Classic CRT.

I had a couple of Raspberry Pis laying around, so I decided to try to interface the CRT with one of them. I failed very hard trying to do so, but at least I learned something about hardware PWM on the Raspberry Pi. You can read more about it here. The problem with the PI was: It was not real-time. You simply could not tell, when the next instruction in a program gets executed. It might be in 10µs, but it also might be in 300µs:

Bildschirmfoto 2016-05-06 um 19.34.25
Image 2: Timing issues with the Raspberry Pi

I ditched the idea of using the PI for this project. I bought a BeagleBone Black instead which has the capability of doing stuff in real-time (Real-time means, that we can predict how long an instruction will take to be executed). You can read about the PRU in this article, or here.

In the following articles of this series I’ll explain how I built this project and I’ll also upload all the code, images and documents you need to rebuild the project on your own! Feel free to contact me, if you need additional resources!

Table of contents

Part 0 – The story behind the project (You are here)
Part 1 – The CRT
Part 2 – The Software
Part 3 – Additional Thoughts

An alternative version of this project using a Raspberry Pi 4.


3 thoughts on “Control a Macintosh Classic CRT with a BeagleBone Black – Intro

  1. I am just commenting to make you know of the nice discovery my friend’s child had reading your web site. She figured out many details, not to mention what it’s like to have an amazing helping mood to make many people quite simply have an understanding of chosen tricky issues. You actually did more than visitors’ expected results. I appreciate you for coming up with such valuable, healthy, educational not to mention unique tips on your topic to Emily.


Leave your two cents, comment here!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.