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A PDP-10 KL10 Model 1090

A series of large, 36-bit word mainframe-like systems built by DEC. They were basically a re-implementation of the earlier PDP-6 architecture, whose hardware engineering had been a failure. (The machines were so similar at the programming level that PDP-6 object code could run on a PDP-10.)

DEC sold 4 different generations of PDP-10 processors: the KA10, the KI10, the KL10, and the small KS10. All except the KS10 were available in multi-processor versions with two CPUs.

PDP-10s were very important machines on the early ARPANET and Internet, being one of the few (relatively!) cheaply available machines which could run a full NCP and later TCP/IP stack as a multi-user environment at the time.

They still have a large following today, due in part to the innovative time-sharing operating systems written for them (especially ITS). There are several good simulators available, notably SIMH and KLH10.


Like most mainframes, PDP-10's were composed of a number of separate free-standing units of various types (CPUs, main memory, etc), connected together with busses carried in point-point cables. Systems could be upgraded by adding additional units, or replacing existing units with enhanced successors.


DEC-10's supported a number of different busses: there are different types of bus for main memory (the PDP-10 Memory Bus), and peripherals. On the KA10 and KI10 models, the PDP-10 I/O Bus was provided for the latter; it allowed peripherals to interrupt the CPU, and supported programmed I/O (including block transfers).

On the KL10, an optional DIA20 In/Out Bus Controller could also be attached, to provide a KA10/KI10 compatible I/O bus. However, by the KL10 era, most low-speed peripherals were connected to front end computers, always DEC minicomputers, which allowed the production of PDP-10-specific versions of all those devices to be dispensed with.

The KS10, which was sui generis, had its own custom memory bus, which appeared only on the main backplane. For I/O, it used the UNIBUS and (via RH11's) the MASSBUS.


For DMA, mass storage peripherals connected directly to memories (PDP-10 memories are generally multi-port).

In the KA10 and KI10, high-speed mass storage device controllers generally connected to both i) a channel, the DF10 Data Channel, which was attached to an external memory bus, and ii) the PDP-10 I/O Bus. The CPU controlled the channel via the device controller. This setup was used to connect mass storage controllers, such as:

The RH10 MASSBUS controller (which appeared toward the end of the KI10 period), for MASSBUS mass storage devices, was similarly connected (to a DF10 channel, and the I/O bus). On the KL10, up to 8 RH20 MASSBUS controllers, which similarly supported mass storage devices, could be connected to the system.


On machines with an I/O bus, other optional devices (the paper tape reader and punch, and console asynchronous serial line, were generally standard), which connected to the I/O bus, included:

Front ends

PDP-10's made use of front end computers from an early stage.

The DA10 Twelve- and Eighteen-Bit Computer Interface, which connected to the I/O bus, allowed a computer such as a PDP-8/I to exchange data with a PDP-10. The DC68A Data Communication System uses a DA10 to communicate with a PDP-8/I which has a DC08 Serial Line Multiplexer to interface with up to 128 asynchronous serial lines.

The DL10, connected to both an external memory bus and the I/O bus, allowed the PDP-10 CPU to control up to four PDP-11's. The DC75 Synchronous Communication Multiplexer uses a DL10 to communicate with a PDP-11/20 which has one or more DS11 Multiple Line Synchronous Interfaces to interface with 8 or more (depending on the configuration) synchronous serial lines.

On the KL10, up to 4 DTE20 Ten-Eleven Interface‎‎s, each of which allowed the connection of one PDP-11, could be attached. (One PDP-11, the 'master', a PDP-11/40, would bootstrap the KL10, including loading the microcode; it could also be used for other 'normal' front end activities, such as driving groups of asynchronous serial lines, providing DECtapes, etc.)


The first three generations of PDP-10's were marketed as the DECsystem-10, running the TOPS-10 operating system; the third was also sold as the DECSYSTEM-20, running TOPS-20. (The varying capitalization was allegedly the result of a trademark infringment suit.)

Two other very important operating systems also ran on PDP-10's: MIT's ITS (a very advanced system, from whence came EMACS, and much more besides), and TENEX, which DEC later turned into TOPS-20. WAITS was created at SAIL and also ran at two other sites.


PDP-10 ad

The 36-bit line was cancelled by DEC many times. In the beginning, the PDP-6 was difficult to manufacture and maintain, and only 23 were sold; it was cancelled not long after its introduction. However, it made a comeback as the PDP-10, which was a success. At the end, the PDP-10's uncertain future allowed a number of small vendors to sell PDP-10 'clones'.

Cancelled DEC projects

  • KXF10 "Dolphin", cancelled around 1978.
  • KT20 "Minnow", cancelled around 1979.
  • KC10 "Jupiter", cancelled 1983.
  • KD10


Two PDP-10 clones were built at Xerox PARC, since that was easier than trying to convince Xerox top management to allow the purchase of a relatively expensive machine from a direct competitor.


  • Foonly: F-1, F2, F3, F4, F5 (unfinished)
  • Systems Concepts: SC-30M, SC-40
  • Tymshare: System 26, System 26KL.
  • CompuServe: JRG-1 (unfinished)
  • XKL: TOAD-1, TOAD-2

Hobbyist recreations

Software simulators

See also

Further reading

External links