Computer History Museum to highlight storage, from RAMAC to microdrives

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

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One way he tries to illustrate the importance of modern storage systems to school children for whom technology is ubiquitous is to ask them a random question, such as "What's the height of the Hoover Dam?" When the kids all jump on a nearby computer to search for the answer, he then asks them where the information came from.

In 1956, Al Hoagland was among 50 or so IBM employees who worked on building the RAMAC 305 in IBM's San Jose lab

Al Hoagland with a RAMAC 350 disk drive.

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

"They just stare. It's a total blank," he said. "That's the frustration when you worked on something to make that possible, but you're not even recognized. Most people just want to see a 3D movie, they don't much want to know what made it possible."

RAMAC's 'miracle memory'

What helped make today's high-tech systems possible was hardware like the RAMAC. (The name stands for Random Access Method of Accounting and Control). It was nothing short of a technological miracle, and IBM even described its massive storage system as "miracle memory." The genius behind the storage medium was the fact that it exploited a rotating disk stack, which allowed read/write heads to cut seek times dramatically from those of tape storage devices or magnetic drum storage, which only allowed data to be read from the outside of a spinning cylinder.

The RAMAC 305 took up the better part of a room and could store all of 5MB of data -- the equivalent of 64,000 punch cards or 2,000 pages of text with 2,500 characters per page. The drive system had an input/output data rate of roughly 10 kilobytes per second.

It sold for about $200,000 -- or you could lease it for about $3,200 a month, according to Spicer.

IBM engineer Rey Johnson led a team of 50 -- Hoagland included -- that worked in an 8,000 square-foot building in San Jose developing the RAMAC. At the time, IBM had one of just two tech labs in Silicon Valley; Hewlett-Packard owned the other. Prior to 1952, IBM's technology labs were in New York.

"IBM picked San Jose ... because [it] couldn't hire anyone from the West Coast," Hoagland said. "Because why would you want to go east to work? So they had to find a way to recruit talent on the West Coast. In the next town over, Campbell, they had a punch card plant. So Campbell made it more efficient to get this lab going."

Hoagland is currently finishing a book on 50 years of disk drive history. He's also involved in restoring a RAMAC disk drive for the upcoming Computer History Museum exhibit opening.

"At the time the RAMAC was being worked on, the main systems used punch cards and magnetic tape," said Hoagland. "Some used magnetic drum memory for storage, primarily being pushed by Univac."

The RAMAC's memory consisted of a magnetic process drum that ran at 6,000 rpm. A separate magnetic core memory unit synchronized the I/O flow in and out of the RAM. Another separate address register with 100-character blocks located data on the RAMAC's disk drives in six-tenths of a second. That's about a million times slower than today's desktop and laptop computers, Spicer said.

After RAMAC

The RAMAC 305 was the precursor to the IBM 1301 disk storage unit. When released in 1961, the 1301 was the first storage system that used "flying heads" on actuator arms to read and write data to its 50 24-inch magnetic platters. The 1301's head and actuator arm assembly looked something like a bread-slicing machine turned on its side because each drive platter had its own read/write head.

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