Data Disc (Datapoint)

1984 Data Disc (Datapoint)

Failure of a technologically pioneering company

Why its important

Data Disc was a pioneer in the use of a metal film recording layer and contact start-stop low mass sliders but it failed to exploit these technologies to achieve substantive commercial success.


DataDisc was started by Armin Miller in the mid 1960s. Miller had worked for Ampex where he created the "Miller Code," later rediscovered by IBM who referred to it as MFM recording. DataDisc was a maverick in the disk drive business eschewing conventional oxide coated disks and high load air bearing heads.

The DataDisc low load and low mass slider technology was the precursor to the Winchester (IBM 3340) head technology that came to dominate the HDD industry. IBM licensed the technology but developed the Winchester technology as a lower cost and more reliable alternative.

DataDisc's recording layer was electrolessly plated and was difficult to produce due to the need to continuously replenish and balance the chemistry of the plating baths. Production disks used a plated protective rhodium overcoat to mitigate the effects of wear and stiction. The DataDisc media was used in a variety of multiple head-per-track disk drives produced in the 1960s and 70s that were used in low volume, exotic applications such as a Lawrence Livermore Labs graphic system and a control computer for the Voyager space probe. As an alternative to Rhodium, Data Disc developed a sputtered carbon film, but did not use it in production at that time.

During the 1970s DataDisc demonstrated its technology to industry participants including at least IBM and Memorex. The demonstration unit at IBM was in a wooden box about 8-inches square and perhaps 4-inches high. It contained a plated disk and recording head that played a recorded signal on an oscilloscope. The most striking feature was the loud screeching sound made in operation. Neither Memorex nor IBM realized that there was great deal of the industry's future in that technology!

Miller left the company and was replaced by Bill O'Sullivan who added tape drives and controllers to the product line. O'Sullivan left in the mid-1970s and was relaced by Jim Woo (one of the infamous "Dirty Dozen".) Woo changed the company name to Amcomp and in 1978 engineered the sale of the company to Datapoint, a San Antonio, Texas maker of microprocessor based, distributed computers and terminals. The company became Datapoint Peripheral Products division and was charged with developing magnetic storage devices for Datapoint.

Datapoint corporate management had little interest in disk production processes, and no patents were pursued for the sputtered carbon process. Francis King published a paper on the process and then went on to implement the process at SyQuest. According to Disk/Trend, the first Syquest drive shipped in 1981.

Under Datapoint ownership, a small disk drive was developed that shipped in late 1982 as a component of the 9301 subsystem. The drive used a proprietary three element, lightly loaded moving head and a carbon sputtered overcoated plated film disk (not unlike SyQuest). About this time, Datapoint fell on hard times as the Personal Computer became a cost effective alternative to its unique terminals. The drive was not very cost effective and the unique technology was expensive to support. It was quickly replaced by an OEM drive from Seagate.

What became known as the Magnetic Storage Division of Datapoint was sold to Xebec in early 1984. Xebec wound down existing Datapoint products by October 1984 (see attachment).

Additional Information
"Datapoint Thin Film Media," F. K. King, IEEE TransMag, July 1981, p. 1376-79

Provenance note: Material for this article was primarily contributed by J Clemens. Version 11 of the article was reviewed and essentially approved by the Computer History Museum's Storage SIG on June 20, 2012. Substantial additions to the approved article were made on August 5, 2012.

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