Well, this has certainly been an exciting week on All Programmable Planet. In his recent column on the increasing use of FPGAs in the DIY (do-it-yourself) arena, Chris Taylor referenced the open-source R-R-R-R-RetroCade Synthesizer. This little beauty, which was designed and created by Jack Gassett, is built on the Papilio FPGA development platform.
What Chris failed to mention was that Jack was also the creator of the Papilio Platform itself, as well as being the driving force behind the Gadget Factory. As soon as I discovered this, I immediately got in touch with Jack. In turn, Jack immediately joined All Programmable Planet (it's like "The Cycle of Life" writ small).
Jack and I ended up chatting on the phone. I was naturally interested in how Jack had come to develop the Papilio Platform, and he promised to reveal all, resulting in the following tale...
My love affair with hardware hacking and computers started at the age of 13 when I was given a used Commodore 64 for my birthday. We purchased it out of the local newspaper from an engineering student at Fresno State University. This C64 had been modified with a reset switch, pause button, and a toggle switch for the fast load cartridge. Whenever anyone saw the mods on my C64, they wanted the same mods to be applied to their machines.
I became very active in the BBS (bulletin board system) scene. With so much interest in the mods to my C64, a group of my BBS friends got together and we took my C64 apart to figure out how the mods actually worked. After descending on our local Radio Shack and promising that our group of 13-year-olds would not burn down the house if they sold us a soldering iron, we were able to duplicate the mods on a C64 belonging to one of my friends.
This early success provided the spark for what has become a lifetime of hardware hacking. From then on out, there was not a single piece of electronic hardware I owned that was not opened up and modified in some way. In fact, I often bought a new piece of hardware simply because of the hacks that were possible with it!
After many years of quietly hacking and learning in my basement, making things to amuse myself and amaze my friends, I realized that there was a big problem with my approach -- none of what I was doing could be mass-produced. All of the cool things I was achieving were really just novelty hacks that didn't serve any actual purpose. I did them just to do them, after which they ended up sitting on a shelf in my basement.
It was at this point I came to the realization that what I really wanted was to start inventing things. I wanted to design things that had the same "Gee Whiz!" factor as the hardware hacking I had been doing for years, but that could be reproduced so others could hack on things that I had made!
The problem was that I wasn't entirely sure how to proceed with this idea, I knew I didn't want to be an engineer. I had already done two years of an electronic engineering college degree and was really turned off by it. It wasn't that I was unable to do the engineering work, but rather that my greatest strength was my creativity, and I really struggled with how stifling an engineering curriculum was to that creativity. In the meantime, I pursued an IT (information technology) career to support myself while I figured out what I wanted to do when I grew up. I am sorry to admit, however, that in the back of my mind I always felt IT was a "cop out" because it came way too easy and did not demand my full ability, but what was I to do?
Next page >