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DB-19: Resurrecting an Obsolete Connector

Oh man, this is good! You’re looking at the first DB-19 connector to be made in the 21st century:

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This is a happy story about the power of global communication and manufacturing resources in today’s world. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, then you’ve certainly heard me whine and moan about how impossible it is to find the obscure DB-19 disk connector used on vintage Macintosh and Apple II computers (and some NeXT and Atari computers too). Nobody has made these connectors for decades.

I’ve got a disk emulator product called Floppy Emu that attaches to an Apple DB-19 port, so I need a steady supply of these connectors to build my hardware, and that’s a problem. Over the past couple of years, I’ve scrounged what seems like every warehouse and basement on the planet, and bought up nearly the entire world’s remaining supply of new-old-stock DB-19 connectors. My last few product batches included DB-19s from some very obscure international sources. It was clear I’d reached the end of the road.

This wasn’t a surprise. The DB-19 shortage first became obvious to me about a year and a half ago, when a manufacturing error forced me to replace all the DB-19 connectors in a batch of boards, and replacements couldn’t be readily found. Since then I’ve written a dozen times about the impending DB-19 doomsday. I also made several attempts to design a DB-19 substitute using a small PCB and suitably-arranged header pins, but while they more-or-less worked, I wasn’t satisfied with the result.

The specific part in question is a D-SUB DB-19 male solder cup connector, sometimes called DB-19P. It’s very similar to the more familiar DB-9 (old style serial ports) or DB-25, but with a different width to accommodate the different number of pins. “But wait!” says the well-intentioned blog reader, “this web site over here has DB-19P connectors for sale right now!” They may claim to have them, but trust me, they don’t. Electronics parts suppliers seem to make a habit of listing available items that aren’t actually available, whether out of laziness or as an intentional bait-and-switch, I’m not sure. But if you call them or try to actually order the parts, you’ll find they don’t exist.

 
Custom Manufacturing

About 15 months ago, I first started looking into the idea of manufacturing new DB-19 connectors. So here’s the thing – how do you go about having something like this made? I had no clue, and it took me over a year. How do you find factories that might possibly build something like this, and then how do you find a contact person to whom you can explain your needs? Almost all the manufacturers that I talked to blew me off, or wouldn’t even talk to me at all. The US-based manufacturers weren’t interested, or couldn’t do it. In the end, I went through Alibaba listings for companies that make other types of D-SUB connectors, and emailed several dozen of them to ask if they could make a DB-19. Only a few even replied, and only two said they could, both located in China.

The estimated cost was eye-watering – a minimum order size of 10000 pieces and a total cost well into five figures. I had naively assumed that somebody might still have old DB-19 molds they could reuse, or that DB-25 tools could somehow be easily adapted to make DB-19 connectors. Nope. I did a lot of research into possible alternatives like 3D printing or alternate materials, but nothing looked viable. And given the tiny scope of my disk emulator business, I couldn’t justify spending tens of thousands of dollars for making new DB-19s.

So nothing happened. A year passed, and the DB-19 shortage grew more dire still. I made another attempt at designing a DB-19 substitute, but wasn’t satisfied with the results. Out of options, I reluctantly circled back to the manufacturing idea again. I tried to calculate how many years of future sales it would take before I could earn back my investment, and it was a depressingly large number.

But just as I was getting discouraged, good luck arrived in the form of several other people who were also interested in DB-19 connectors! The NeXT and Atari communities were also suffering from a DB-19 shortage, as well as others in the vintage Apple community, and at least one electronics parts supplier too. After more than a year of struggling to make manufacturing work economically, I was able to arrange a “group buy” in less than a week. Now let’s do this thing!

 
Let’s Build It!

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Early on, it became clear they’d need more specific directions than simply “make it like a DB-9 but with more pins.” They wanted mechanical drawings and specifications for the part. Umm… They asked for information from my engineering department. Er… I was stumped by this for a short while, but then I found an old mechanical drawing of a DB-25. I photoshopped that sucker, edited some key measurements, and that was what they used for the very expensive mold-making process. I’m still kind of shocked that this actually worked.

Payment required wiring a Very Large Amount to a bank in Hong Kong – no PayPal accepted here. I’m sure the people at my bank thought I’d been duped by some kind of Nigerian 419 scam. Maybe it’s more common elsewhere, but transfers of this type are rare at US retail banks. In my case, it took the branch manager and 30 minutes of paperwork to get the transfer done.

Two months passed, and a round of prototyping. Progress was slow but steady, and I received updates from the manufacturer every few days. I kept waiting, eagerly anticipating this DB-19 bounty. At the end of May the product finally shipped, only to disappear into a US Customs black hole somewhere for a couple of days. Then at long last, after what felt like an infinite wait, I came home to find 10000 of these beauties stacked on my doorstep:

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20160603_180001_Richtone(HDR) copy

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For the moment at least, I have nearly the entire world’s supply of DB-19 connectors, stacked in my living room. I think I’m going to fill the bathtub and swim in them.

Next step: re-ship the majority of these DB-19 connectors to the other people in the group buy. They should start becoming available in small quantities at electronics parts suppliers in a couple of weeks.

Assuming Floppy Emu sales continue apace, I’ll eventually make back my investment in a couple of years. If not, it will at least make for a good story. 🙂 Now, let the retro-hardware celebration begin!

Read 43 comments and join the conversation 

43 Comments so far

  1. Eric June 4th, 2016 4:24 pm

    Wow… I can’t believe it actually happened.

  2. Avi June 4th, 2016 4:36 pm

    Are they keeping the molds for when you have to re-order?

  3. Henry June 4th, 2016 6:28 pm

    Well done! Took a lot of guts to do this I’m sure.
    I hope the gamble pays off. And I sure could use a floppy emu…;-)

  4. Damien Guard June 4th, 2016 10:25 pm

    Now you’ve done that maybe you can arrange a production run of DB23’s which the Amiga used as its video output. People making video cables for the amiga are using DB25’s that have been hacked down in size like this;

    http://amigastore.eu/950-thickbox_default/monitor-cable-1084s-amiga-rgb-db23-f-to-din6-m.jpg

    [)amien

  5. Herb June 4th, 2016 10:25 pm

    So the majority are going to the others in the group buy? I had no idea the retro computing industry was that active outside of the Apple side of things. It\’s great that the will power and demand is there to achieve this milestone!

  6. Raffzahn June 4th, 2016 10:55 pm

    Nice job. For future batches you might want to connect for example FCT in Munich, Germany, as they produce almost everything you’ll ever need in D-Sub (and other) connectors. Even special to type configurations with high power or coax connectors embedded. Also they got old fashioned enginers in house still knowing all D-Sub specs and standards without the need to suplying drafts. Ofc, they might not be as cheap per pice as ordering 10k in China, but they deliver from 1 onward.

    H.

  7. Dave June 4th, 2016 11:03 pm

    Wow! They\’re beautiful! Congrats!

  8. Makertron The Insanity Continues June 4th, 2016 11:25 pm

    Just out of curiosity what was the hardest part for them to manufacture? I’ve milled small dies for pressing metal parts before and it was not that hard. What I am missing here about the complexity of these plugs? The pins? I understand 10000 of these is a lot but it is not like they delivered them in a week…

  9. Hyratel June 5th, 2016 12:43 am

    @makertron – for n=pincount, these are n+3 conponents: each pin, the plastic or resin-loaded fibrous insulating core, the front shell (the ‘surround’, and the back shell. the pins are die-pressed into the plastic core, and the two halves of the clamshell are grommet-ed together in the retaining screw holes or around the rim (or both, quality dependent). the back shell is a ‘simple’ 1-action press-and-cut to form the rolled-in edge. the front shell is more complex, requiring a fairly involved process to get the friction fit divots pressed in. That’s a contributor to the complexity. for comparison, USB-A is n+2 components – the metal shell, and the plastic core. granted, the metal shell is a far more complex forming process, but it’s also an active item and recieves economy-of-scale benefit

  10. Hyratel June 5th, 2016 12:47 am

    addendum: from a stamped blank, the USB connector can be done in two “brake” passes and a crimp, which are easier than the non-convex form of the D-sub surround, which needs to be braced from the inside with a form that can be narrowed for removal once the divots are pressed. this requires something like a 3 part anvil arrangement with a wedge and two Faces

  11. Rod Smallwood June 5th, 2016 1:18 am

    Hi
    Well played sir!! I make parts for PDP-8’s and PDP-11’s for restorers and replica makers
    Up till now I have done front panels. I was lucky enough to find a silk screen company on my door step here in the UK. I’d tried everywhere else. I took a sample in and the two girls
    got very excited. They had been trained in high precision work and had been doing hats, handbags and tee shirts.
    They followed the exact methods used in 1960’s. All done by hand one layer at a time and 24hs between to air dry. The results – amazing!!

    Rod (Panelman) Smallwood

  12. Noah Vail June 5th, 2016 6:03 am

    About 1991, I was middlemaning trailer loads of surplus connectors from TRW. It was mostly military-grade round connectors for submarines but there were lots DB style in there as well. Now I’m wondering if the US Military ever used DB19 for their own purposes.

  13. Steve June 5th, 2016 6:47 am

    Yes, the molds will be preserved for the future! New custom molds had to be created for the front and back metal shells, and the plastic insulator insert. This was the majority of the work and the cost.

  14. Tobia June 5th, 2016 7:38 am

    This is awesome! I have an old Macintosh Plus and have been considering getting a Floppy Emu for some time. I’m glad to see things worked out.

  15. convolvatron June 5th, 2016 7:58 am

    maybe you need help. think of all the good you could have done with all that time and money. db style connectors?

  16. Rogelio June 5th, 2016 8:18 am

    This story must go on the 8-bits camp share route. Awesome.

  17. Ryan June 5th, 2016 8:48 am

    Fun fact, there is no such thing as a DB-9 connector, it’s actually a DE-9 connector.

  18. Yuhong Bao June 5th, 2016 8:50 am

    @Ryan: Unfortunately the existence of eg the connector mentioned in the article kinds of breaks the original system where the D-sub shell size was considered separate from the number of pins.

  19. Win Heagy June 5th, 2016 9:34 am

    Nice work! Thanks for the effort.

    Win

  20. Alexandre "Tabajara" Souza June 5th, 2016 1:03 pm
  21. Stefano June 5th, 2016 1:20 pm

    Awesome! Fantastic effort and work for a good cause!

  22. dbsys June 5th, 2016 11:39 pm

    Wow, this is a great story and a great move for Apple II, NeXT and Atari communities!

    Thanks for making this happen. Great job!

    Are you going to possibly provide a list ofthe electronics parts suppliers that are going to get DB-19 connectors from you?

    Thanks again.

  23. kubik June 6th, 2016 12:16 am

    I have bought some male DB23 recently, I never have considered them as too rare. They’re not exactly cheap (1,14EUR piece for the connector, 0,49EUR for the casing), but still a reasonable alternative to hacking DB25 🙂

  24. Ralph Hyre June 6th, 2016 3:34 am

    I’m hopeful we’ll get to the point of having plenty of supply of DB-9 and DB-25 options.

    You need a DB-19 for floppies, and a DB-25 for SCSI and printer ports.

    I’m hoping to track down a SCSI to SD Card adapter that I can just plug into the back of the Mac Plus.

  25. Bigdaddycainer June 6th, 2016 10:52 am

    What was the name if the company? Would they make power connectors as well

  26. Steve June 6th, 2016 2:06 pm

    @dbsys – At least one person will be selling them on eBay soon, so check there. You should also be able to get some from http://www.iec-usa.com and their affiliate companies.

  27. Edward Williams June 6th, 2016 11:49 pm

    Hello sir I’d like contact info sent to edward1469@mac.com I’m interested in single qty and 50. 25 of each male and female and qty 100 50 of each thank you
    Edward Williams

  28. cb88 June 7th, 2016 5:31 am

    Yeah you have to really keep an eye on them when doing such transfers… my dad almost lost the money for a house once… they banker sent the money to the “Bank of X” Country… and didn’t provide a recipient other than the bank!

    So the bank sat there with the money and was like… whose is this ours? free!?

  29. Tim Buchheim June 7th, 2016 4:11 pm

    Awesome. So good to see such an important connector for classic computing made available again.

  30. rocket-dog June 8th, 2016 1:03 pm

    I have an UlraSATAN that needs one of those……….

  31. the hatter June 8th, 2016 2:26 pm

    @Bigdaddycainer I assume you’re aware of the SCSI2SD but don’t want to whack on a pin adaptor for the scsi side, and hack up an external power brick to the floppy-style power connector ?

    And to @Steve – awesome work to find a way to make the project happen. I’ve not got a need right now, but do have some Atari machines which use them. Knowing the parts exist again in the hands of many interested hobbyists, thus the odds are reasonable I could track one down if I needed one, makes me happy.

  32. Micki June 9th, 2016 1:03 pm

    I love this so much.

  33. Greenious June 10th, 2016 2:34 pm

    Awesome work!

    I believe the high density DB-26 has the same physical dimensions, and relates to DB-19 like DB-15 (VGA) relates to DB-9, and use the same hood if needed.

    Anyway, I got hold of a handful of these several years ago, bought the very last my local supplier had. So my personal needs are met for the future, but I am so happy to see the “retroscene” getting together like this and make this happen.

    Just awesome work from you all!

  34. ed June 13th, 2016 11:02 am

    didnt know they were rare. Still have some 10 of them,still with some wires attached. Think i have been storing them since 85-86

  35. SeoulBigChris August 5th, 2016 8:04 pm

    Just curious, a D-sub B shell is the same. While I understand that the plastic insert needed to be custom made, why couldn’t they use existing tooling for the shell proper?

  36. Steve August 6th, 2016 5:52 pm

    I think a B shell is sized for a 25-pin connector, and is a different size.

  37. SeoulBigChris August 7th, 2016 6:06 am

    As I understand it, all B-shells are the same size, whether they have 25 or 19 pins (normal density), 44 pins (high density), or 52 pins (double-density).

  38. Steve August 9th, 2016 7:23 am

    The DB-19 isn’t really a B shell and probably shouldn’t be called “DB” anything if you’re being precise about naming. Apple called it DB-19 in their documentation, though, and the name stuck.

  39. staringlizard September 20th, 2016 9:03 am

    Absolutely beautiful !

  40. Rene May 19th, 2017 6:12 am

    Hi are you selling some of these connectors ?

  41. Steve May 19th, 2017 6:20 am

    They are available for purchase here: http://www.iec-usa.com/cgi-bin/iec/DB19MS

  42. mikro July 16th, 2017 1:42 am

    Hmm, now the only remaining thing is to order a batch of IDC flavours to enable easy DB19 cable making. 😉

  43. andy September 29th, 2017 3:23 am

    Awesome story! Thank you!

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