PiDP-8/I Software

Getting Started with the PiDP-8/I Software
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You will be reading this either:

The latter two are secondary outputs from the first, being the PiDP-8/I software development project’s home.

This is open source software: you are welcome to contribute to the project.


Enabling the SSH Server

That topic is covered elsewhere.

Preparing Your Pi

If you’ve just barely unpacked Raspberry Pi OS onto an SD card and are now trying to get the PiDP-8/I software distribution working on it, stop and go through the Rasbperry Pi documentation first. At the absolute minimum, run raspi-config and make sure the Localization settings are correct. The defaults are for the United Kingdom, home of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, so unless you live there, the defaults are probably incorrect for your location.

Getting the Software onto Your Pi

This section is for those reading this on our project home site or via its GitHub mirror. If you are instead reading this as the file within an unpacked distribution of the PiDP-8/I software, skip to the next section.

Transferring the Source Tarball to the Pi

There are many ways to get the *.tar.gz file onto your Pi:

  1. Copy the file to the SD card you're using to boot the Pi. When inserted into a Mac or Windows PC, typically only the /boot partition mounts as a drive your OS can see. (There's a much larger partition on the SD card, but most PCs cannot see it.) There should be enough free space left in this small partition to copy the tarball over. When you boot the Pi up with that SD card, you will find it in /boot.

  2. Pull the file down to the Pi over the web, directly to the Pi:

    $ wget -O pidp8i.tar.gz

    That will get you a file called pidp8i.tar.gz in the current working directory containing the latest stable release. To get the bleeding edge tip-of-trunk version instead, say:

    $ wget -O pidp8i.tar.gz
  3. SCP the file over to a running Pi from another machine. If your Pi has OpenSSH installed and running, you can use WinSCP, Cyberduck, FileZilla or another SCP or SFTP-compatible file transfer program to copy the file to the Pi over the network.

  4. Clone the Fossil repository using the instructions in the file. (Best for experts or those who wish to become experts.)

Alternatively, switch to the binary OS installation images, which are a copy of Raspberry Pi OS as of our latest stable release, with the PiDP-8/I software already downloaded, configured, and installed for you.

Unpacking the Software on Your Pi

Having transferred the distribution file onto your Pi, unpack it with:

$ tar xf pidp8i.tar.gz

Configuring, Building and Installing

For a stock build, say:

$ cd ~/pidp8i
$ ./configure && tools/mmake && sudo make install

You may want to add options to the configure step, described below.

Subsequent software updates and rebuilds should not require that you re-run the configure step manually, but if automatic re-configuration fails, you can force it:

$ make reconfig

The “mmake” step above will take quite a while to run, especially on the slower Pi boards. The longest single step is building the OS/8 disk packs from source media. Be patient; the build process almost certainly isn’t frozen.

Only the make install step needs to be done via “sudo”. No other step requires root privileges.

After running “sudo make install” the first time, you will have to log out and back in to get the installation’s “bin” directory into your PATH.

Using the Software

For the most part, this software distribution works like the old stable 2015.12.15 distribution. Its documentation therefore describes this software too, though there are significant differences.

Quick start:

  1. To start the simulator running in the background:

    $ pidp8i start

    This will happen automatically on reboot unless you disable the service, such as in order to run one of the various forks of Deeper Thought.

  2. To attach your terminal to the running simulator, run the same script without an argument:

    $ pidp8i
  3. To detach from the simulator's terminal interface while leaving the PiDP-8/I simulator running, type Ctrl-A d. You can re-attach to it later with a pidp8i command.

  4. To shut the simulator down while attached to its terminal interface, type Ctrl-E to pause the simulator, then at the simh> prompt type quit. Type help at that prompt to get some idea of what else you can do with the simulator command language, or read the SIMH Users' Guide.

  5. To shut the simulator down from the command line:

    $ pidp8i stop

    That then lets you run something like Incandescent Thought without conflict.

You might also find our Learning More links helpful.

The Background Simulator Service

The PiDP-8/I software distribution uses systemd to run the background PDP-8 simulator as user-level service, so you needn’t give sudo on any command to interact with that service, as you did in older versions of the software.

Although you can give verbose systemctl commands like this:

$ systemctl --user start pidp8i

…we’ve provided a wrapper for such commands:

$ pidp8i start
$ pidp8i stop
$ pidp8i restart
$ pidp8i status -l

All arguments are passed to systemctl, not just the first, so you can pass any flags that systemctl accepts, as in the last example.

Configure Script Options

You can change many things about the way the software is built and installed by giving options to the configure script:


Perhaps the most widely useful configure script option is --prefix, which lets you override the default installation directory, /opt/pidp8i. There are many good reasons to change where the software gets installed, but the default is also a good one, so unless you know for a fact that you want to change this default, leave it alone.

For example, you might prefer that the installer put the built software under your home directory. This will do that:

$ ./configure --prefix=$HOME/pidp8i && sudo make install

You might think that installing to a directory your user has complete control over would remove the need for installing via sudo, but that is not the case, since the installation script needs root privileges to mark a few of the executables as having permission to run at high priority levels, which improves the quality of the display, particularly with the incandescent lamp simulator feature enabled.


The American Standards Association (predecessor to ANSI) delivered the second major version of the ASCII character encoding standard the same year the first PDP-8 came out, 1965. The big new addition? Lowercase.

That bit of history means that when the PDP-8 was new, lowercase was a fancy new feature in the computing industry. That, plus the memory savings you get from storing stripped ASCII as two 6-bit characters per 12-bit PDP-8 word means that most PDP-8 software did not expect to receive lowercase ASCII text, particularly the older software.

The PDP-8 lived long enough to see lowercase ASCII input become common in the computing industry.

As a result, PDP-8 software reacts in many strange and wonderful ways when you give it lowercase input. Some software copes nicely, other software crashes, and some software just sits there dumbly waiting for you to type something!

This configuration option lets you control how you want your simulated PDP-8/I to react to lowercase input:


If you build the software on a multi-core host, the PDP-8/I simulator is normally built with the incandescent lamp simulator feature, which drives the LEDs in a way that mimics the incandescent lamps used in the original PDP-8/I. (We call this the ILS for short.) This feature takes too much CPU power to run on anything but a multi-core Raspberry Pi, being the Pi 2 and newer full-sized boards, excluding the Zero series.

If you configure the software on a single-core Pi — models A+, B+, and Zero — the simulator uses the original low-CPU-usage LED driving method instead. (a.k.a. NLS for short, named after this configuration option.)

Those on a multi-core host who want this low-CPU-usage LED driving method can give the --no-lamp-simulator option to configure. This method not only uses less CPU, which may be helpful if you're trying to run a lot of background tasks on your Pi 2 or Pi 3, it can also be helpful when the CPU is heavily throttled.


If you have done Oscar's serial mod to your PiDP-8/I PCB and the Raspberry Pi you have connected to it, add --serial-mod to the configure command above.

If you do not give this flag at configure time with these hardware modifications in place, the front panel will not work correctly, and trying to run the software may even crash the Pi.

If you give this flag and your PCBs are not modified, most of the hardware will work correctly, but several lights and switches will not work correctly.


This flag is for an alternative serial mod by James L-W. It doesn't require mods to the Pi, and the mods to the PiDP-8/I board are different from Oscar's. This flag changes the GPIO code to work with these modifications to the PiDP-8/I circuit design.

See the linked mailing list thread for details.

As with --serial-mod, you should only enable this flag if you have actually done the mods as specified by James L-W.

This option is a pure alternative to --serial-mod: you can leave both off, but you cannot pass both.


See for the values this option takes. If you don't give this option, the simulator runs as fast as possible.


By default, the PiDP-8/I starts up with the core state undefined and runs the boot script you’ve selected either with the IF switches or by passing it on the command line to pidp8i-sim or pdp8. This brings the simulator up in a known state, with no persistence between restarts other than what was written to the simulated storage devices before the last shutdown.

On a real PDP-8 with core memory, however, the values in memory will persist for weeks without power; core memory on a PDP-8 is not zeroed on power-up, unlike RAM on a modern computer. Since the CPU doesn’t start executing anything on power-up in a stock PDP-8 configuration, this means the user can toggle in a program/OS restart address with the switch register (SR), load it into the program counter (PC) with the Load Addr switch, then START the CPU to restart their program without having to reload it from tape or disk.

There were also several power fail and restart options designed and made available for the PDP-8 series throughout its lifetime. One of these — the KP8-I for the PDP-8/I — would detect a power fail condition, then in the brief time window while the power supply’s reservoir capacitors kept the computer running, this option card would raise an interrupt, giving a user-written routine up to 1 millisecond to save important registers to core so they would persist through the power outage. Then on power-up, it would start executing at core location 00000, where another user routine would load those registers back from core to restart the system where it left off before the power failed.

Giving this option gives roughtly the same effect for all generated boot scripts: any time the simulator is shut down gracefully, it saves all key simulator state — registers, core, device assignments, etc. — to a disk file. Then on restart, that script will reload that saved state if it finds the saved state file.

This is not identical to a KP8-I in that it doesn’t require any user-written PDP-8 code to run, which is why it’s optional: it’s ahistoric with respect to the way the included OSes normally ran.

In absence of a hardware option like the KP8-I, a more accurate simulation would only save the core memory state to a host-side disk file and reload it on simulator re-start. You can get that behavior atop the current mechanism by adding commands like the following to each bootscript you want to affect:


That zeroes the key registers and prevents the CPU from running as it normally would after giving the RESTORE command to SIMH.


When you install the software on a systemd-based Linux system, we normally configure the OS to automatically mount USB drives when they are initially plugged in, which allows the SING_STEP + DF media image auto-attach feature to work smoothly. That is, if you plug in a USB memory stick holding a *.pt file containing a paper tape image, you want the simulator to be able to find it if you have the DF switches set to 1, telling the PiDP-8/I front panel code to look for something to attach to the simulator's paper tape reader.

This feature may interfere with other uses of USB, such as when booting your Pi from an external USB hard disk drive. Give this option to disable the feature.

(Alternately, you could modify our etc/udev.rules and/or bin/usb-mount scripts so that they work cooperatively with your local USB setup rather than conflicting with it.)


Give this option if you do not want to build Ian Schofield's cc8 C cross-compiler on the host.

Because the cross-compiler is needed to build the CC8 native OS/8 compiler, disabling the cross-compiler also causes the native compiler to be left off the bootable OS/8 RK05 disk image, as if you’d passed the --disable-os8-cc8 configuration option.


By default, the boot media used for the IF=0 and IF=7 cases is an extended version of OS/8 V3D, as distributed by DEC, plus some patches and third-party software additions, per the following sections.

For the late 2020 release, we have another more ambituous option, being the OS/8 Combined Kit, which is the last complete release of OS/8 released by DEC. (See that link for details.)

Pass this option to boot OCK rather than OS/8 V3D.


Several default components of the OS/8 RK05 disk image used by boot options IF=0 and IF=7 can be left out to save space and build time:

You can later remove each of these after installation using our package manager.


There are a few file sets not normally installed to the OS/8 RK05 disk image used by boot options IF=0 and IF=7. You can install them with the following options:

You can later add each of these after installation using our package manager.


This sets all --enable-os8-* flags to false and all --disable-os8-* flags to true. This mode overrides any --enable-os8-* flag, so if you want a minimal install plus just one or two features, it’s simplest to give this flag and then use our package manager to add in the elements you want rather than pass a bunch of --disable-os8-* options.

This option may not do some things you think it should:

  1. This flag's name is aspirational, not a promise of an ideal: our current "minimal" installation could be stripped down further. For example, we currently have no way to leave out OS/8's BASIC interpreter, even though no core OS services depend on it.

  2. This option does not affect the --lowercase option because that affects only OS/8's command interpreter and OS/8's BASIC implementation, so we deem it to be orthogonal to the purpose of the --os8-minimal flag, which only affects the optional post-BUILD features. You may therefore wish to give --lowercase=none along with --os8-minimal.

  3. This option does not affect --disable-os8-src, because it only suppresses optional features in the primary bootable OS/8 media. If you want minimal OS/8 boot media without a separate source code data disk, give this option as well.

  4. Although this option disables display of the INIT.TX file on boot, the file is still generated, on purpose. First, it acts as build documentation, recording what was built and when. Second, you may wish to enable this welcome message later, and it’s rather painful to go back through the build process to generate it after the fact.


Run ./configure --help for more information on your options here.

Runtime Configuration

The pidp8i command sources a Bourne shell script called pidp8i.rc — normally installed in /opt/pidp8i/etc — which you may edit to override certain details of the way that script runs. The intended purpose is to give you a place to define local overrides for default variables:


By default, the PiDP-8/I software distribution installs and uses GNU screen(1) to allow the simulator to run in the background yet be reattached from a later terminal session, then possibly later to be backgrounded once again. Without the intermediation of something like screen, the simulator would either forever be in the background — so we’d have to export the console another way — or we’d have to give up on background startup, requiring that users fire the simulator up interactively any time they wanted to use it. Using a screen manager lets us have it both ways.

The SCREEN_MANAGER setting is for use by those that want to use one of the alternatives to GNU screen:

Note that the alternative screen managers are not installed by default. If you set SCREEN_MANAGER=tmux, you must then ensure that tmux is in fact installed before the pidp8i script goes to try and use it. From the Pi’s command line:

$ sudo apt install tmux

Switching between configured screen managers must be done while the simulator is stopped.

Simplifying Boot and Login

The setup and installation instructions above assume you will be using base the Raspberry Pi OS as a network server, offering SSH if nothing else. Thus, we do not try to bypass any Linux security mechanisms, not wanting to create an insecure island on your network.

However, if you want to run your system more as an appliance, you can cast away some of this security to get auto-login and other convenient behaviors:

The OS/8 Disk Images

For the first several years of the PiDP-8/I project, the OS/8 RK05 disk image included with the PiDP-8/I software (called os8.rk05) was based on an image of a real RK05 disk pack that someone allegedly found in a salvaged PDP-8 system. Parts of the image were corrupt, and not all of the pieces of software worked properly with the other parts. It was also a reflection of the time it was created and used out in the world, which was not always what we would wish to use today.

Starting in late 2017, several of us built a series of tools to generate OS/8 media images from pristine source files in a repeatable, testable way, culminating in Bill Cattey’s os8-run, which backs other features like the --disable-os8-* configuration options.

The resulting set of media images entirely replace the old ones and go well beyond each besides. All prior features are still available, though some features present on the old images are disabled by default, requiring either --enable-os8-* configure options or package manager commands to add features back in. Mostly, though, the new media images are more functional than the old ones.

If you wish to know the full details of how these media images are created, see the documentation for os8-run and that for class simh.

The remainder of this section describes some aspects of these media images which are not clear from the descriptions of the --*-os8-* configuration options above.


The baseline for the bootable OS/8 media images comes from a set of DECtapes distributed by Digital Equipment Corporation which are now included with the PiDP-8/I software; see the media/os8/*.tu56 files. From these files and your configuration options, the os8-run script creates the baseline bootable v3d-dist.rk05 and ock-dist.rk05 disk images.

The default build creates a complete OS/8 V3D system including BUILD support, FORTRAN IV, MACREL v2, and more, but you can switch to an OCK build at compile time if you prefer.


It's pretty easy to run out of space on an OS/8 RK05 disk, not just because of its 2 × 0.8 MWord limit, but also because of an OS/8 limitation in the number of files on an OS/8 filesystem. We leave the archive of device drivers and the TD8E subsystem off the system packs to avoid hitting this second limit. You can add them later from OS/8 Binary Distribution DECtape #2, such as to create media for a TD8E based PDP-8/e.

Default Additions

The OS/8 RK05 disk image build process normally installs many software and data file sets to the disk image. See the option descriptions above: the "disable" option set effectively lists those packages that are installed by default, and the following set of "enable" option set lists those left out by default.

Console Enhancements

The default build enhances the console in a few ways:

  1. The SIMH PDP-8 simulator and a few select parts of OS/8 are adjusted to cope with lowercase input to varying degrees.

  2. Rubout/backspace handling is set to assume a video terminal rather than a teletype by default.

You can read more about this in the wiki.


The v3d-dist.rk05 disk image referenced above is considered a read-only master. A copy is made called v3d.rk05. This is the default OS/8 rk05 image assigned to the IF=0 and IF=7 boot options.

In keeping with the standards of good systm management this image incorporates all mandatory patches, as well as optional patches appropriate to proper operation of the system. For details on the available patches, the selection criteria, and information about other optional patches see the OS/8 system patches document.

The OS/8 TU56 Tape Image

As with the OS/8 disk image, this distribution’s build system can create custom TU56 tape images from pristine source media. This replaces the old os8.tu56 binary image previously distributed with this software.

The build system actually creates four such tape images according to a 2×2 matrix of choices:

Overwriting the Local Simulator Setup

When you run sudo make install step on a system that already has an existing installation, it purposely does not overwrite two classes of files:

  1. The binary PDP-8 media files, such as the RK05 disk image that holds the OS/8 image the simulator boots from by default. These media image files are considered "precious" because you may have modified the OS configuration or saved personal files to the disk the OS boots from, which in turn modifies this media image file out in the host operating environment.

  2. The PDP-8 simulator configuration files, installed as $prefix/share/boot/*.script, which may similarly have local changes, and thus be precious to you.

Sometimes this "protect the precious" behavior isn't what you want. (Gollum!) One common reason this may be the case is that you've damaged your local configuration and want to start over. Another common case is that the newer software you're installing contains changes that you want to reflect into your local configuration.

You have several options here:

  1. If you just want to reflect the prior PDP-8 simulator configuration file changes into your local versions, you can hand-edit the installed simulator configuration scripts to match the changes in the newly-generated boot/*.script files under the build directory.

  2. If the change is to the binary PDP-8 media image files — including the generated OS/8 disk images — and you're unwilling to overwrite your existing ones wholesale, you'll have to mount both versions of the media image files under the PDP-8 simulator and copy the changes over by hand.

  3. If your previously installed binary OS media images — e.g. the OS/8 RK05 disk image that the simulator boots from by default — are precious but the simulator configuration scripts aren't precious, you can just copy the generated boot/*.script files from the build directory into the installation directory, $prefix/share/boot. (See the --prefix option above for the meaning of $prefix.)

  4. If neither your previously installed simulator configuration files nor the binary media images are precious, you can force the installation script to overwrite them both with a sudo make mediainstall command after sudo make install.

    Beware that this is potentially destructive! If you've made changes to your PDP-8 operating systems or have saved files to your OS system disks, this option will overwrite those changes!

Testing Your PiDP-8/I Hardware

You can test your PiDP-8/I LED and switch functions with these commands:

$ pidp8i stop
$ pidp8i-test

You may have to log out and back in before the second command will work, since the installation script modifies your normal user's PATH the first time you install onto a given system.

It is important to stop the PiDP-8/I simulator before running the test program, since both programs need exclusive access to the LEDs and switches on the front panel. After you are done testing, you can start the PiDP-8/I simulator back up with:

$ pidp8i start

See its documentation for more details.


Copyright © 2016-2020 by Warren Young. This document is licensed under the terms of the SIMH license.