Mainframe Computer Connector Failure and Solution

We have uncovered another interesting phenomena which has impacted our collection.  As the subject line indicates, we have identified a failure mode concerning the gold finger contacts on the numerous circuit boards in our large systems.  Specifically, a hard, mostly carbon (with an amalgam of other unknown atmospheric particles) film has adhered selectively to the plated gold.  It is highly resistant to cleaning with anything from alcohol to acetone.  The only way to remove the film is with mild abrasion ( 3M Scotchbrite ).

When the collection was first started, the large mainframes suffered from reliability issues that was subsequently tied to buildup of soot and dust on the gold finger contacts of the printed circuit boards. This was back in 2002, and alcohol cleaning did not entirely solve the reliability issue as the intermittency recurred after several months. In doing our research, we found a product online called “Stabilant 22”.  It is a polymer substance that becomes conductive when a voltage differential occurs between two planes of metal, as between the contact fingers of a printed circuit board and the PCB connector. When we applied it, the problem was solved and did not recur for several years.

In the last couple of years, two of our large mainframes ( and other machines ) have became unstable once again. But this time, alcohol cleaning and application of Stabilant 22 has not fixed the problem. While evaluating the nature of the problem, I experimented by applying mild abrasion to the circuit board contact fingers, and then cleaned them with Kim-Wipes and alcohol. Previously, where no visible residue was left on the wipe, there was now a significant quantity of dark residue removed.

Samples of unknown carbon residue taken off with light abrasion

Once the contacts were again treated with the contact enhancer, the intermittent failures went away.

We applied this fix to all of the circuit cards in both machines and re-established the robust reliability we had experienced previously.

Our speculation for this phenomenon is that the carbon deposited on the PCB contact fingers is in the form of 2D graphene glass, which is a good insulator and quite transparent. The abrasion breaks the surface of the glass and the carbon converts to the particulate form we are used to which is easily removed with alcohol.

        The step by step process we have developed to successfully restore the contact integrity is:

  1. Use an alcohol soaked KimWipe to first clean the contact of loose surface material.
  2. Lightly rub the contact fingers with a super fine grade Scotchbrite pad.
  3. Use an alcohol soaked KimWipe to remove the carbon rich material shown in the photo.
  4. Repeat step 3 till the wipe no longer accumulates material.

So far, we have reached out to a number of resources for a definitive determination of the nature of the material we are cleaning off, with no confirmation. We invite the assistance of the technical community at large to help us with this determination.

IMLAC PDS-1 Power Supply

In early July of 2019, the power supply of one of our rarest and iconic machines, started to fail. This is the IMLAC PDS-1 originally produced from 1970 to 1972. Despite the efforts of our staff to troubleshoot and replace components, we were soon left with a completely failed power supply.

Typical of these situations, we set about to do an engineering evaluation toward designing a form, fit, and functional replacement. The photos below show the power supply system in its’ original form.

IMLAC Power Supply – Power Input, Rectifier, and Filtering (left chassis)

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IMLAC Power Supply – Regulator Chassis (right chassis)

Accessing the schematics, we found what voltages and currents the power supply system had to provide. Next, using the power supply components we have available for this purpose, we had to design a system which fits in the chassis and interfaces with the control and power signals the computer needs to run.

Surprise ! The Power Supply Generates a Non-DC timing Signal

The schematic below shows a section which we couldn’t figure out initially. At first glance, the collection of four diodes on the left looks like a bridge rectifier. On closer examination, the anodes and cathodes are not hooked up like a bridge rectifier. What we have here instead is a frequency doubler which is used to generates a 120 hz signal from the 60 hz power line that is used as a periodic interrupt for the video display logic. Not at all expected.

Original IMLAC schematic showing 120 hz sync signal generator (frequency doubler)

Below is our replication of this circuit. We used a miniature 120 VAC to 10 VAC transformer.

Schematic for 120 hz sync signal generator

After the surprise above, we set about removing the original power supply components and installing a new configurable supply along with the necessary modifications to the internal wiring harness.

Below are two images showing the right and left power supply chassis as modified.

IMLAC Power Supply – After Modification the Power Input, Rectifier, and Filtering are no longer needed (left chassis)
The regulator hardware has been replaced by a configurable power supply(on the right) and the 120 hz signal generator on the left ( orange color board with caution label ).

We completed and tested the above modifications in about 1 1/2 weeks. A week after the unit was put back in service, a third power supply ( located in the control console ) also failed. We replaced it with another configurable supply as shown below.

Control Console rear showing replacement supply. This powers the control console LEDs.

The system has now been running since late July without incident.

This is a good example of the type of work we have been performing for the last 15 years.

Bendix G-15 – Solder Degradation

In the process of restoring the Bendix G-15, we have discovered a phenomena that degrades the electrical connections which provide bias and signal flow, rendering the computer non-functional.

Failed Connections

Below is a group of photos which illuminate this failure mode called “electromigration”. This process is caused by a continuous DC potential applied to a metal junction. Metal ions migrate in the direction of current flow. For most new machines, this is not a problem as this process takes quite a number of years to progress to the point where the electrical connection is broken. At LCM+L, we get machines after they had run for a long time. Worse yet, since it is our intent to restore and run the machines for as long as we can, it is necessary to find a solution that allows that maintenance need only be done every decade or so.

A failed connection ( as verified with an ohmmeter ). Please note the circular crack running around and just above the base of the circular conductor.
A similar failed connection.
This one hadn’t quite failed. You can see just a small connection at around 260 degrees. This connection will fail in a fairly short period of time.

Failing Solder

This same phenomena plays out in the metal structure of the solder itself. The photos below show the before and after of solder restoration. In the first photo, the solder looks dull and mottled. This is due to the tin having migrated out leaving only lead in the Tin/Lead solder formulations used until the early 2000’s. The modern formulations are Tin/Silver/Copper and are much less likely to have metal ion migration.

The large resistors at the top show the effects of tin migration.
After removing the old solder and replacing it with a modern formulation, you can see the solder is smooth and bright, indicating good integrity.

Long, Repetitive Work

This restoration process took quite a while. After determining that all the tube modules in the machine were affected in this way, we simply set about removing a module and then removing and replacing the solder in all the high, continuous current sections.

An interesting article on solder, covering some of the topics mentioned in the article can be found at:

Xerox ALTO – Interesting Issue

In the process of restoring the Xerox ALTO, an interesting issue came up.


We received our first ALTO in running condition and after evaluation and testing, put in on the exhibit floor available to the public. One afternoon about a year later, the machine suddenly froze and stopped functioning. It was taken off the floor and evaluated in one of our labs. When it became clear that power supply current was not flowing into random parts of the backplane, the focus shifted to the power supply rails. It was there we were confronted with this phenomena.

The ALTO Was A Prototype

Certain production and test details were left out of the ALTO. The amount of current running through individual pins supplying regulated DC to the logic is unusually high. Most of the time, power supply current is fed through as many pins as possible to reduce the total current running through any one pin. Because the ALTO was a prototype, the designers only used the minimum number of pins to do the job. This resulted in a phenomenon called “electro-migration”. It is the reverse of the process used for electroplating. In this instance, tin ions migrate away from the solder joints carrying the power supply current. The six pins in the center of the first photo show a mottled (instead of smooth) surface, and one of the pins has a dark ring around it indicating where the solder has totally migrated away from the connection (lower right pin). The second photo show six pins where the tin has migrated away.

Example of electro-migration on Xerox ALTO power supply bus.
Another example. Here all six connections in the middle of this photo are compromised.

Confronted with the preventing this in the future, LCM Engineering increased the surface area of the connections by soldering brass buss rails to all of the ALTO backplane power supply pins. This is shown in the photo below:

Brass buss rails soldered to ALTO backplane to increase power supply current capacity. The buss rails are the vertical elements running through the backplane.

Once this fix was applied, the ALTO was put back in service, and this phenomenon has not repeated itself.

The ALTO will be monitored to see if this phenomenon shows up again. This chapter has also been instructive for some of the other machines we are restoring. In these instances, it is extreme age, rather than something done for a prototype as the causative factor.

Bendix G-15 Vacuum Tubes

Early in the restoration and troubleshooting of the Bendix G-15 it was noted that tube filament failures occur with some regularity. It is not possible to observe working filaments on all the tube modules, as at least half the tubes have what is call a “getter coating” at the top of the tube, obscuring the filaments.
We hosted a subject matter expert to aid with troubleshooting the G-15, and he indicated that tube filament failures were the principal cause of machine downtime, usually about once per week. This invariably entailed up to a day of troubleshooting to find the offending tube(s).
Due to the above information and our own experience, it was decided to engineer a sensor and indicator system which would allow quick identification of the offending tube or tubes.
The configuration decided upon was a hall effect sensor coupled to a passive magnetic field concentrator ( wound ferrite core ) placed in the current path of each individual vacuum tube filament that would light an led when the tube filament was functional. Up to six sensors ( the largest complement of filaments in a tube module ) are packaged on a substrate which fits on each tube module and are powered by the filament voltage entering each module.

We gave the sensor package the acronym “FICUS”. It breaks down to FI = Filament, CU = Current, and S = Sensor.

Here is what a hall effect sensor mated to a wound ferrite core looks like:

Below is a photo of a FICUS module in the process of being assembled:

Four element FICUS Module

Here is a completed FICUS module:

Note the mating connector and wires ready to attach to the vacuum tube module.

Here is the FICUS after the wires have been attached to the vacuum tube module:

Here is the completed vacuum tube/FICUS module ready to be plugged into the Bendix G-15:

Here is the view of the Vacuum Tube/FICUS module oriented as it would be in the G-15:

And finally, a couple of Vacuum Tube/FICUS modules in an operating G-15:

DEC Computer Power Supply Module Retrofit

In the process of troubleshooting our earliest machines, we had to replace large components called electrolytic capacitors. These are located in all the power supplies for any computer. We successfully replaced these devices and got the machines running. Recently though, we have started to see these devices fail once more. They have a finite life of a maximum of 14 years. That means that we have to replace these devices every 10 to 14 years. Also, the larger capacitors are no longer manufactured, but can still be special ordered. As it is our mission to have our computing hardware last for a lot longer than that, we did our research and engineered a replacement for the power supply modules these capacitors are found in. Our goal was to provide several decades of service without having to service these modules. The photos and descriptions below show the process:

Below is what the original power supply circuit board looked like

When we strip out the circuit board and remove the heat sink, we get this

We created, using a CAD program and a 3D printer, a plastic component mounting for the new components.

As you can see, the plastic mount fit perfectly into the old power module frame.

After populating the mount with all the components it looks like this.

Now we attach the modified heat sink to the original module frame.

Install the assembled component mount in the frame along with the modified heatsink and the new power module is complete.

One of the features of the module is, it has no solder connections, all of them being compression.  Wires are compressed into a square cross section using a stainless steel screw.  This provides very high reliability.


The upshot of all this work ( there were 38 modules in various machines ), is power supplies that are more efficient and have a rated MTBF ( mean time before failure ) of 40 years. These power supply modules draw 2/3 less power and produce 2/3 less heat, reducing the heat load on all the components in a machine. In addition, as a result of these changes, the total power savings per year is 250,000 kilowatt hours. Electricity rates in this area of Seattle are about 8 cents/kilowatt hour. That means a direct cost savings on our electric bill of $20,000 a year.

Bendix G15 Germanium Diodes

In restoring the Bendix G-15 vacuum tube computer, I have uncovered a phenomena which is requiring us to replace over 3000 germanium diodes. These diodes appear to have lost their hermetic seal and the atmospheric contamination has caused their leakage current to rise to very high levels as they reach a normal operating ambient temperature of approx. 40 degrees C. Because these diodes are used in the clamp circuits that generate the 20 volt logic swing of the computer, the combined low impedance of the approx. 3000 diodes ends up shorting out the -20 volt power supply after 5 to 10 minutes of power-on time.
We have replacement diodes on order, and this should resolve the power supply issue.

Interestingly though, the failed diodes exhibit another interesting phenomena which this engineer hasn’t seen before.  Hooking up a diode to an ohmmeter to measure its leakage current, and heating the diode to about 40 degrees C, causes the diode leakage, measured as resistance, to go from a few thousand ohms to a few tens of ohms.  If the ohmmeter remains connected and the diode is allowed to cool to normal ambient, the low resistance measurement persists.  If the ohmmeter is disconnected briefly and then reconnected, the diode leakage current returns to its nominal few thousand ohms.

DEC PDP10 Model 1095 Repair

A few months ago, our PDP10 Model 1095 ( pictured ) had just successfully booted the WAITS operating system and was running an early version of Ethernet.  One afternoon, the PDP11-40 front-end computer ( unit with chassis extended on left ) stopped working and I was tasked to find out what had happened and repair it.  What followed was almost three months of difficult troubleshooting and repair.

What had happened was, one of the peripheral devices ( a TC-11 DECTAPE Controller at the left end of the machine )  attached to the PDP11’s Unibus had had a power supply failure, causing the regulated 15 volt supply to rise to 28 volts.  These supplies have an over-voltage crowbar circuit which is designed to shutdown the supply by blowing a fuse if the power supply ever goes into an over-voltage condition.  This crowbar circuit failed and this resulted in a number of circuit boards in the PDP11 frying.

Once I replaced and/or repaired the failed circuit boards, I upgraded the TC-11 power supply to a modern switcher which doesn’t have the failure mode described above.

With the hardware sorted out ( this is a couple of weeks into troubleshooting ),  I set about trying to boot the WAITS operating system once again.  A further snag cropped up at this point.  WAITS wouldn’t fully start and would complain about a “pointer mismatch”.  This points to the DTE-20 10-11 interface, but no combination of replacement boards would succeed in bringing up WAITS ( except for a number of random times ).  The solution to this problem turned out to be an old bugaboo of the KL-10 processor.  A number of the control devices do not fully initialize at power-on as their reset lines do not go to all of the parts in a particular device.  We have seen this phenomena on the RH-20, but apparently the DTE-20 also has some hardware that doesn’t get initialized.  I determined this by running the -10 side diagnostic for the DTE-20, and then booting WAITS successfully.  This was after weeks of eliminating all other possibilities as myself and others were not aware that the DTE-20 had components that came up in an unknown state at power-on.

One side note: In upgrading the TC-11 power supply, it was found that the power controller that feed line voltage to it, had failed some time ago and been hacked to make it work without it’s contactor.  A new contactor was ordered and installed.