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Chapter 12

ZEBRA, a simple binary computer1

W L. van der Poel

Summary The computer ZEBRA is a computer based on the following ideas:

1. The logical structure of the arithmetic and control units of the machine have been simplified as much as possible; there is not even a built-in multiplier nor a divider.

2. The separate bits in an instruction word are used functionally and can be put together in any combination.

3. Conventional two stage operation (set-up, execution) has been abandoned. Each unit time interval can be used for arithmetical operations.

4. A small number of fast access registers is used as temporary storage; at the same time these registers serve as modifier registers (B-lines).

5. Optimum programming is almost automatically done to a very great extent. The percentage of word times effectively used is usually greater than 60%.

6. An instruction can be repeated and modified while repeated by using an accumulator as next instruction source and the address counter as counter. This can be done without any special hardware.

This has resulted in a machine which has a very simple structure and hence contains only a very moderate number of components, giving high reliability and easy maintenance. Because of the functional bit coding, the programming is extremely flexible. In fact the machine code is a sort of micro-programming. Full-length multiplication or half-length multiplication in half the time are just as easy, only require a different micro-programme. The minimum latency programming together with the effective use of word times lost in other systems results in a very high speed of operation compared to the basic clock pulse frequency.


In the Dr. Neher Laboratory of the Dutch Postal & Telecommunications Services the logical design of a computer called ZEBRA has been developed, and this computer has been engineered and constructed by Standard Telephones & Cables Ltd, England. The logical system is so different from most computers, that it is worth while to devote a special lecture to it. As time is limited, no technical details nor questions about dimensions or capacity will be discussed. They can all b~ found in the literature [van der Poel, 1956; van der Poel, 1952].

The main idea of the machine is to economise as far as possible on the number of components by simplifying the logical structure. For example, multiplication and division are not built in but must be programmed. Of course this system can only work with an appropriate internal code which has enough properties to execute basic arithmetic and logical routines effectively. In fact, the internal machine code is more or less a system of microprogramming [Wilkes and Stringer, 1953].

Operation part of the instruction

The most conspicuous, but probably not the most important, characteristic is the functional use of the separate bits in the operation part of an instruction. An instruction word in ZEBRA is composed as follows:

It is a binary, two-address machine with one address of 13 bits for the selection of a location in the main store (a drum of 8192 locations divided into 256 tracks of 32 words each), and a second address of 5 bits for the selection of one of 12 fast access store registers and several permanently wired locations (e.g., input, output, accumulators, constants). The operation part has 15 bits, each one having a separate and independent meaning. The most important of these are the A, K, D and E bits.

A- and K-bits

There are four main components in the machine: the drum store, the fast store, the arithmetic unit and the control. The A-bit in the instruction controls the interconnection of the drum and the

1Proc. ICIP, UNESCO, pp. 361-365, June, 1959.


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