VCF East X: The World’s Largest USB Thumb Drive

The Vintage Computer Festival last weekend featured racks and racks of old minicomputers, enough terminals for an entire lab, and enough ancient storage devices to save a YouTube video. These storage devices – hard disks, tape readers, and 8″ disk drives – were only connected to vintage hardware, with one exception: a DEC RL02 drive connected to a modern laptop via USB.

The DEC RL02 drive is the closest you’re going to get to a modern mechanical hard drive with these old machines. It’s a huge rack unit with removable platters that can hold 10 Megabytes of storage. [Chris] found one of these old drives and because he wanted to get into FPGA development, decided to create a USB adapter for this huge, old drive.

The hardware isn’t too terribly complex, with a microcontroller and an FPGA that exposes the contents of the drive over USB mass storage. For anyone trying to bootstrap a PDP-11 or -8 system, [Chris] could download disk images from the Internet, write them to the disk, and load up the contents of the drive from the minicomputer. Now, he’s using it with SimH to have a physical drive for an emulated system, but the controller really doesn’t care about what format the disk pack is in. If [Chris] formatted a disk pack with a FAT file system, he would have the world’s largest and heaviest USB thumb drive in the world.

Video below.

Update: As promised, [Chris] put all the code in a git

27 thoughts on “VCF East X: The World’s Largest USB Thumb Drive

    1. Yeah, I am so done with scheduling youtube videos to go public when the (wordpress) post is published. I’m just uploading everything as public now. Sorry for anyone subscribed to the youtube channel that can’t click the link in the video.

  1. Video all good now.

    I Remember doing the 1 week training course on maintaining these back in 1985 as part of my PDP 11 training, The technology was old in the tooth even then but all pretty rock solid reliable. All the training was explained down to circuit level with an awesome A2 manual.

    Everyone had DEC equipment back then and I still remember DEC being bought by Compaq in the 90’s and thinking WTF, then Compaq were bought by HP, now there is nothing left of the company but memories I guess, how the mighty fall!

  2. I was kinda hoping it would be one of the really big hard drives… I had a couple back in the late 80’s early 90’s from a buddy that was tearing out a VAX 11785 system… those drives weighed something like 300 pounds took, 3 phase 240, and had a removable 9 platter system driven by a 3/4 HP 3600 rpm motor. I still have parts from it today.. would love to have heard it running knowing what I know today!

  3. This is such a waste of time! Buying a USB flash drive from NewEgg is so much cheaper and more convenient!

    I kid! I kid! This is great! Not only that it works, but that there was still data sitting on the drive.

    1. Yes – he presents very well.

      I think this is an underrated skill in technical circles. My current job is partly based on being able to present technical info to customers and write documents clearly. I know a number of people who have great technical skills but couldn’t write their name in the snow with both hands, which limits what they can do.

  4. Damn. I had one of these that I eventually chucked in the trash because I couldn’t justify moving it anymore. It was a beautiful piece of machinery though. The top opened up like the hood of a car, revealing the ‘guts’ of the drive circuitry. Mine had a window in the platter box where you could see the head movements. This was manufactured with the intent that the heads and platters be serviceable.

    Awesome to see this working!

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