Happy 50th, hard drive (and an app a day)

Party! It's IT Blogwatch, in which we wish the hard drive a happy birthday. Not to mention an app a day keeps a life at bay...

Sharon Fisher screams:

Fifty years ago this week, with "Hound Dog" climbing the music charts, Elvis Presley made his first scandalously hip-gyrating appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. But something much bigger was about to shake up the world. A small lab in a sleepy orchard town was delivering the first of what we now know -- more than 2 billion units later -- as a hard disk drive.


[There were] 18 or so people in the mid-1950s working for IBM in San Jose on the Random Access Method for Accounting Control, or RAMAC. IBM had started the facility there to take advantage of aerospace talent in Seattle and Los Angeles who didn't want to move to the East Coast.


The group wasn't afraid to try new ideas, such as developing a magnetic system using paint with ferrite filings in it -- similar to the paint used on the nearby Golden Gate Bridge, spread evenly using the centrifugal force of a spinning disk and filtered through women's hose to remove the clumps.


That first RAMAC drive is thought to have been sold to the San Francisco office of Crown Zellerbach AG, the world's second-largest paper company at the time.

50 Years of the Hard Drive slide show.

Melissa J. Perenson remembers it like it was only yesterday:

When the hard drive was first introduced on September 13, 1956, it required a humongous housing and 50 24-inch platters to store 1/2400 as much data as can be fit on today's largest capacity 1-inch hard drives. Back then, the small team at IBM's San Jose-based lab was seeking a way to replace tape with a storage mechanism that allowed for more-efficient random access to data


The integrated RAMAC was about two refrigerators in width and not quite as tall, and it literally weighed a ton. Its 50 24-inch platters were in a stack inside the unit, in an assembly that spun at 1200 revolutions per minute. The unit used two magnetic recording heads. The RAMAC could hold 5MB--about the storage that today is needed for one 5-minute MP3 encoded at 128 kilobits per second.


From the late fifties to the early seventies, hard drives were largely used in mainframe computer systems, the kinds found in large corporations and government. The rise of personal computers in the late seventies and early eighties opened the door of opportunity for hard drives--and in turn dramatically influenced where computer technology could go.


Timeline: 50 Years of Hard Drives.

How It Works: Hard Drives.

Cyrus Farivar, for one, welcomes our new storage overlords:

Fifty years ago, all of us at Engadget weren't even a glimmer in our mothers' eyes -- in fact, now that we think about it probably most of our parents hadn't even met yet. By that logic, it's hard for us to imagine a world without hard drives ... the RAMAC 305 ... held around 5 MB of data at the cost of $10,000 per megabyte ... By 1980, Big Blue had one-upped itself with the introduction of the first one gigabyte hard drive, which was half the physical size, weighed 550 pounds, and cost only $40,000. Flash forward to 2006, where the fingernail-size microSD card kicking around in our cell phones and cameras these days (albeit not a hard drive) now costs about $10 per gigabyte -- gotta love the march of technology. By that logic, we should have a new type of terabyte storage device to carry around by about 2056, probably embedded in our bodies and hard-wired to our brains.

Clay Ryder has a tear in his eye:

Last night I attended an event at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View that was celebrating the golden anniversary of the IBM RAMAC 305 ... having my 9 year old son alongside me that evening helped keep everything in perspective. The museum is a gem in and of itself, and the fact that I have worked on equipment from many of the eras being preserved only served to remind myself that I have been around this industry a lot longer than I care to admit. Of course, having my 9 year old looking at an adding machine from 1925 and asking me if it was an early model personal computer only goes to show how far this industry has come, as well as how much of its innovation we take for granted.


The hard drive changed the fundamental value proposition of information from being a serial listing of data, much a like phone book that can only be read forward from page 1, into a random access method, more akin to a Rolodex. From this point forth, we have never viewed data in the same way, and as a result we have digitized practically ever piece of information possible


I wonder if my son will return to the Computer History Museum when he is 59 and gaze in amazement in what the last 100 years of disk technology has brought, He might find it really odd that I thought a 1TB 2.5 inch HDD would be cool, as he looks at relics of 10TB thumb drives and what else may have come.

Slashdotters pontificate:

grasshoppa: I predict at some point in the future, capacity will take a back seat to recoverability (for the average consumer). To that end, I predict harddrive companies effectively setting up a raid 1 array on a single drive; Probably by platter. To the host system, it would appear as a single drive of 160gb (for example), but it would actually be two platters of 160gb, with a bit for bit copy being maintained on the fly by the drive itself.

TubeSteak: I'm waiting for them to cram 2 opposing sets of read/write arms (or even just a second set for reading) so that they can effectively halve the latency and seek times without having to go faster than the existing 15k screamers.

Brickwall: While a student at the University of Toronto in the late 1970's, my fraternity (mostly engineers) invited a professor for a dinner ... I ventured the comment "Won't it be great when you can get a desktop computer with 1 Mb of RAM, and a 10 Mb hard drive?". The prof thought this was the funniest thing he'd ever heard. He listed the following "fundamental physics" reasons why these devices would be impossible ...  I wonder if he's seen an Ipod.

NMBob: When I was in high school (1970's) our computer programming/math teacher had a hard drive disk platter that might have been from one of the these machines ... you could actually see the individual bits. They were pretty thin, but the tracks looked to be about 1/8" wide/tall.

Todd Pritsky:

The very first class I was certified to teach for Hill Associates back in the mid-90s was our so-called Volume 5 (Computer Systems).  Among other toys, I used to lug around a bulky 80MB harddrive that I'd dissected so I could show people how they worked.  Now, of course, my 60GB iPod fits in my shirtpocket and allows me to carry scores of movies and my entire music collection.  We've come a long way, baby ... My dad -- now retired -- was a systems engineer at IBM for a quarter-century.  I rememember when he first went to work for Big Blue in the late-70s and brought home the first harddrive I'd ever seen.  It was a slick-looking, smoky gray metal and plastic thing about the size of one of those See'n'Say toys, though much heavier.

NotSoccer Mom:

Oh Hard Drive, where would we be without you? ... the first removable hard drive was invented in 1963, the first 5.25-inch hard disk was born in 1980 and the first 3.5-inch hard drive in 1983. And so it went, until this year when both Cornice and Seagate each announce a 1-inch hard drive that holds 12GB. Wow.

They say we would be without cell phones, iPods, and other "indispensable" items without the beloved hard drive. Oh, and not to mention the whole blogosphere wouldn't exist, because PCs wouldn't exist!

Yeah, I'd say this is one 50th birthday definitely worth celebrating. Perhaps I should defragment my PC tonight. That would be a nice gift--sort of like a massage for my computer.

Ian Lamont and Lucas Mearian chat about it on this week's storage podcast:

[What? You were expecting a transcript?]

Buffer overflow:

Around the Net

Around Computerworld

And finally... Dana Hanna planned-an application a day -- for 30 days straight

Richi Jennings is an independent technology and marketing consultant, specializing in email, blogging, Linux, and computer security. A 20 year, cross-functional IT veteran, he is also an analyst at Ferris Research. Contact Richi at blogwatch@richi.co.uk.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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