Computer History Museum to highlight storage, from RAMAC to microdrives

Today's $60 1TB drive would have cost $1 trillion in the '50s

Hard disk drives sure have come a long way, baby.

In the 1950s, storage hardware was measured in feet -- and in tons. Back then, the era's state-of-the-art computer drive was found in IBM's RAMAC 305; it consisted of two refrigerator-size boxes that weighed about a ton each. One box held 40 24-inch dual-sided magnetic disk platters; a carriage with two recording heads suspended by compressed air moved up and down the stack to access the disks. The other cabinet contained the data processing unit, the magnetic process drum, magnetic core register and electronic logical and arithmetic circuits.

Today, we have flash drives, microdrives, and onboard solid-state drives that weigh almost nothing, hold gigabytes of data and cost -- compared to the 1950s -- very little. How cheap is storage now? A 1TB hard drive that sells for as little as $60 today would have been worth $1 trillion in the 1950s, when computer storage cost $1 per byte, according to Dag Spicer, senior curator of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

And a modern-day 4GB stick of RAM would have cost $32 billion.

Computer History Museum exhibit opens

In January, the Computer History Museum will open a new exhibit called "Revolution: The First 2,000 years of Computing" that will tell the story of computing from the abacus to the smartphone. The exhibit will be housed in a $17 million, 25,000-square-foot facility containing 19 galleries, three state-of-the-art digital theaters and 1,000 artifacts.

In 1956, the RAMAC 305 stored 5 million characters. Today, hard drives store as much as 3TB of data and solid-state technology is quickly approaching a terabyte of storage in a single solid-state drive

From 5MB of capacity in 1956 to 160GB now.

Click to view slide show of 60 years of hard drive technology.

One of the museum's alcoves is dedicated to memory and storage systems because, while the semiconductor industry gets most of the credit for advances in computing through the years, storage -- both short-term memory and disk drives -- is the unsung hero of modern technology, according to Spicer.

"Without large storage systems you wouldn't have e-commerce, because all those giant Web sites that handle your transactions wouldn't exist," he said in a recent interview. "Google needs cheap, fast, reliable storage to process requests."

Al Hoagland, who during his 28 years at IBM helped to create the world's first disk drives exclusively for the RAMAC, remembers when few people thought disk drives had a future. Back then, around 1956, it took three technicians to run the RAMAC: one person for the processors, one for storage and another for the memory system. (Random-access memory, or RAM, technology then consisted of magnetic core memory, which was essentially a matrix of wires with small iron donuts attached to them.)

"I never saw anything that could compete with a disk drive, but I couldn't have forecast where it went," Hoagland said.

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