Computing From Scratch

These hypotheticals hope to teach the fundamentals of computing. They are not real projects I actually want to build, but I do enjoy toying with these ideas.

Audio Basics

Quick tour of what’s involved in a computer recording & generating audio.


How do computers convert a 3D scene into multiple megabytes of 2D image data to be sent to your monitors 30+ times a second in realtime? This hypothetical strives to be as accurate to real hardware as public documentation allows.

Includes a segment on early arcade graphics.

Browsers from Logic Gates

How do web browsers & their underlying operating systems (including I/O, text, & networking) work? How would we build one from-scratch, starting from logic gates? While this will cover core computing concepts in a relatively simple context, it will take a while!

To keep things interesting this hypothetical device won’t support JS, thus necessitating a somewhat-typical CPU. To keep things simple I’ll focus on a happy webby codepath, you should be able to intuit error handling & e.g. Gemini support. The vital UI component of webforms will likewise be a reader exercise.

In summary I’d build hardware focused on parsing text & otherwise-binary streams to rearrange them via a callstack, possibly going through multiple passes. Making frequent use of metaprogramming for key-value mappings, caching, event dispatch, decompression codebooks, CSS stylesheets (parsed in multiple extensively-sorted passes), etc. This device would require not much more software than the standardized EBNF grammars for:

Some of this will require non-trivial task switching; & we’d still require a minimal (I’m thinking a 16bit RISC machine, dedicated & possibly-mirrored RAM) arithmetic processor for:

Add in an analog AI coprocessor (energy efficient, but its durability requires to largely stick with the same few neuralnets; not a problem here!), as well as the various I/O devices we require to access the data we need & to communicate with users, & we’d have an auditory hardware-browser!

A visual browser not only requires additional parsers for images, video, & fonts but also additional hardware. One chip would take a large list of sprites to composite together into the display, caching frames for efficient static displays & video inter-frame decompression. A vectorized multiply-summer within it would aid colour-mixing, gradients, rounded corners, colour-space conversion, resizing, blurs & other convolutions, matrix transforms, etc.

I’d also include a co-processor optimized for doing 32bit arithmetic during tree traversals (binary at a hardware-level, not a software-level though) to handle the complex negotiation involved in document layout, heavily referencing lookuptables to decide how to render text & how wide that text should be. There’d be a few different languages for programming this chip. The lower-level language would be functional (compiling recursion specially), building upon a lower-level stack/concatenative language. The primary & high-level language would allow declaring formulas for CSS properties, keywords, units, etc to for the compiler (running largely on the Layout Unit) to infer a topological sort & implicit loops giving those formulas all the data they need, whilst lowering a high-level collection type. The initial pre-order loop would instead the Output Unit before introducing concurrency, taking full-advantage of the Parsing Unit, Arithmetic Core, & Layout Co-Processor for the more expensive calculations.

See the linked chapters to read in great detail how I’d achieve this!