Columbia University Computing History   

The DEC RP06 Disk Drive

Disk Drive Capacity: 39.6 million 36-bit words (= 178MB) formatted
Peak Transfer Rate: 5.6 microseconds/Word
Access time:
   Track-to-track: 10 milliseconds
   Average: 30 milliseconds
   Maximum: 55 milliseconds
  128 Words/sector
  20 Sectors/track
  19 Tracks/cylinder
  815 Cylinders/pack
Number of heads: 20
Recording surfaces: 19  
Max disks/system: 8
Max drives/controller:    4
Weight: 600 Pounds

Date: 1977. The RP06 is equivalent to the IBM 3330 Mod II. Compare with RP04. Like the RP04, the disk packs are removeable. Originally, our DEC-20s had approximately four RP06 drives each, but most of them were eventually upgraded to sealed, higher-capacity RP07 and RA81 models. One of our RP06s was "mountable", meaning that users could store their own disk packs in the machine room and have operators mount them upon request.

Once in the early 1980s, many of our RP06s experienced head crashes in the same week. The read/write head literally crashes into the disk surface, ripping and tearing at the oxide and metal, effectively turning the disk drive into a lathe. The heads and the disk are ruined beyond repair and must be replaced and all data is lost (but of course the data was faithfully backed up onto 9-track magnetic tape on a daily basis by the machine-room operators). DEC Field Service was at a loss to explain it; higher and higher level engineers were summoned in the familiar process known as "escalation" and various theories were advanced. Finally our own local tech (Warren) figured it out -- around the edges of the disk-well doors were foam-rubber seals, which had all been manufactured at the same time; they had become brittle and were flaking off, sending chunks of ossified latex into the works. He went to the local hardware store and bought some (non-foam) weather stripping to replace the foam, and poof, no more head crashes.

Dean Rubine adds in December 2014:
Your story about head crashes reminded me about a similar one going around when I was at Bell Labs Murray Hill in the late 70s. The story was a new RP06 was installed but wouldn't work. Higher and higher levels of DEC engineers were called in but couldn't diagnose the problem. Finally, the chief engineer is called in to take a look. He powers up the drive and immediately says, "it's spinning backwards."
I forgot to mention this happened to us too. A new disk drive was delivered with a power plug that didn't fit into any available receptacle, so the FE cut it off and connected one that would fit, but got the connections reversed so the disk spun backwards. Live and learn! –fdc
There was another story about an insufficiently anchored RP06 that walked across the machine room floor.

I'll also remember something about a DEC 9 track tape drive that was turned into a musical instrument — you changed pitch by writing blocks of different sizes.

I got most of these stories because as an intern I shared an office in the machine room with an on-site DEC field service rep who kept wrecking company cars.

Peter Bosland reports in 2018 (37 years hence):
In 1981, as part of Mars Corporation, we at ISA (Information Services Australia) had placed an order for an RP06, to connect to our PDP11/70. In those days, delivery to rural Victoria (Australia) took about 8 weeks. After 8 weeks of eager anticipation, finally, the RP06 arrived. Back then, the technology involved in such devices, was in our eyes, out of this world. You can imagine the horror when the forklift driver who was unloading it from the truck accidentally tipped it over, and had it drop 6 feet onto its side. The subsequent additional 8-week delay took forever.

Tony LaPine adds, September 19, 2018:
I developed the DEC RPO6. This was a Memorex product called the 677 and sold to DEC for about $7000 a piece. DEC re labeled the product RPO6.

I left IBM with Al Shugart the founder of Seagate in 1969. Mr. Shugart's first job after IBM was VP engineering at Memorex.

I later started my own disk drive company LTC (LaPine Technology Corporation) in 1984. At LTC I developed the first 3.5 inch disk drive. After selling the company to Kyocera I retired from the disk drive industry and launch one of the early internet companies. The company went public on Nasdaq as XLNK (Datalink).

There is a working 677 at the computer museum in Silicon Valley.

Anthony LaPine MS MBA
Hiplink Software - Chairman

Gary Card adds, 9 August 2019:
I worked for Digital from 1977 until 1993 when I left the job of Canadian Field Operations Manager and Quality Manager for the Americas.

As a Digital (DEC) Field Engineer in Winnipeg, MB Canada I installed several RP06's after attending the Training course in Massachusetts, in 1978, I believe it was.

One of the RP06's was at the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) in Winnipeg. It did experience a "head crash" and I spent the entire night with another FE replacing all the heads. Fortunately, this procedure was covered during the training.

It's Interesting to calculate (based on Tony LaPine's information, $7,000 cost from Memorex) that the price per MB in 1977 for an RP06/ Memorex 677 (176MB) = $40/ MB

Vs Today 2019-08-08 (at London Drugs here, they are advertising a 8TB External SeaGate Hard Drive for $220. = $27/TB or .027/GB or $.00002575/MB, 42 years later.

Bob Neary adds, 4 June 2021:
I used to work (for Digital Equipment) as a field service engineer and for 10+ years maintained onsite equipment at an AT&T / Bell Labs mfg facility. One of the groups was a production area where they used DEC PDP11's and RP06 disk drives to manufacture network cards for their phone line comm gear.

After several years technology had changed and there was no longer a need for the system. It was shutdown. I went there on a Friday to take it all apart and it was brought to the loading dock .. to be scrapped.

The following week there was a MAJOR network crash in NYC (someone cut the wrong fiber cable.. the LIVE one, not the offline one?) and the FCC, FAA, etc demanded failover capability of comm systems in the AT&T network, which required .. starting up that production line again. The scrap company was waiting for more equipment and hadn't shown up yet! We rolled it all back in place, cabled it together again and booted up the RP06's. In the next week or two they produced enough systems so that all of their field comm systems had multiple backups with automatic failover. THEN those ( 9 year old ?) RP06 drives finally met the scrap heap.

For more humor, see the bottom of the RP04 page.
Columbia University Computing History Frank da Cruz / This page created: May 2001 Last update: 4 June 2021