Fail of the Week: Electromigration Nearly Killed This Xerox Alto

The Living Computers museum in Seattle has a Xerox Alto, the machine famous for being the first to sport a mouse-based windowing graphical user interface. They received it in working condition and put it in their exhibit, but were dismayed when a year later it ceased to operate. Some detective work revealed that the power supply was failing to reach parts of the machine, and further investigation revealed an unlikely culprit. Electromigration had degraded the contacts between the supply pins and the backplane traces.

If electromigration is new to you, don’t feel ashamed, it was a new one to us too. It’s “the transport of material caused by the gradual movement of the ions in a conductor due to the momentum transfer between conducting electrons and diffusing metal atoms“, got it? Okay, that’s just a long way to say that passing a sufficiently high current through a conductor for a long time can physically move the metal of that conductor.

This one just doesn’t pop up very often. But in the case of the Alto, an under-specified power distribution system caused a lot of current to flow through too few solder joints. Those joints were left without enough metal to make a decent connection, so they failed.

The fix came with a set of sturdy busbars freshly soldered to the pins, but the interest in this piece comes more from the unusual phenomenon that caused it. That soldered joints can seemingly flow away defies belief. It’s still something most of us will never encounter, but like tales of ball lightning it’s one for the “Fancy that!” collection.

We’ve covered the Alto before, most notably [Ken Shirriff]’s work in restoring the Computer History Museum’s example.

Diablo Drive Appears To Be Cursed

[CuriousMarc] didn’t think it would be a big deal when a former Xerox employee sent him an Alto Diablo drive for service. Turns out the drive was cursed — it would destroy everything it touched including a set of heads and an alignment cartridge. [Marc] and a partner spent two months trying to get the drive operable and the video of their process is pretty interesting.

We were interested in the troubleshooting, but we were really envious of their lab, full of HP workstations, an IBM mainframe, and even a Selectric. We kept having to rewind the video because we had tuned out while we were staring at some of the equipment in the background.

The guys got a lot of practice aligning the heads on the drive. Because the crashed head was bent, it actually dug into the alignment cartridge so on subsequent attempts they had to manually load the disk past the damage. They learned to leave the disk a little out of alignment because tightening the assembly will move it a little bit. If you were already aligned, the heads would be off after you did the tightening.

They used a custom FPGA-based tester that [Carl] developed after reverse engineering the disk format. It is amazing to watch the big drive in action and realize that a standard cartridge for this machine was 2.5 megabytes. There was another controller and disk system called the Trident that would get you a whopping 80 megabytes, but we don’t think this is one of those.

Did they succeed in exorcising whatever demons lived in the drive? Watch the video and find out. Even if you never have to fix a Diablo drive yourself, you’ll be entertained. Especially when they work out how to do a current adjustment on the drive by simulating the circuit in Spice.

We’ve seen a lot about the Alto which is surprising considering how few of them were built. We’ve seen a restoration and even an odd use for a light bulb related to the Alto’s CRT.

Continue reading “Diablo Drive Appears To Be Cursed”