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Controllers designed to be programmed, then embedded permanently into hardware have existed for at least 35 years. Originally difficult to program and use, today they are almost as easy, and as much fun to program as a traditional PC.

Programming Embedded Controllers

Back in the mid 1970s, the first systems appeared designed specifically to allow software to be developed that would run on embedded hardware based on the new 8bit micro-processors that appeared during that decade. One of these was the Rockwell AIM-65 (Advanced Interactive Micro-Computer 6502), and I bought one of these. It had a maximum RAM capacity of 4096 bytes, which had to contain both the program and data. The AIM-65 could be programmed either in BASIC or assembly language (which I used), depending on what PROM (Programmed Read Only Memory) chips were plugged into the sockets on the main board provided for the purpose. Because programs would be lost when power was removed, some external storage device was required - the backup system of choice was a standard audio cassette recorder!

Today there are many commercially available systems designed explicitly for developing software to run on embedded hardware. In almost all cases, the software is developed on a larger system (often a traditional PC), then downloaded to the target hardware for testing. Often the downloaded software can be debugged using software running on the larger system. The higher speed and much greater memory capacity of these modern controllers allow them to be programmed in high level languages such as ‘C’.

Because the software is developed on the larger computer, losing it when power to the micro controller is removed is not a problem. Additionally the memory in the controller is often flash memory, that retains its content when power is removed. Next time the controller is powered up, the previously loaded program will run automatically.

Rockwell Aim-65