From Elvis' hips to spinning disk: 50 years of innovation

'The whole atmosphere was like a start-up,' recalls one veteran

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.

Al Hoagland, then a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, was one of the 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 professionals in Seattle and Los Angeles who didn't want to move to the East Coast, he said. Because of the distance, lab head Rey Johnson had a free hand, Hoagland said.

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RAMAC pioneers; Al Hoagland, Jack Grogan and Lou Stevens

"The whole atmosphere was like a start-up, with IBM putting in the funds but nothing else," Hoagland said. "It's probably as true an example as any of not knowing what you were doing when you arrived, and, four years later, announcing a product that totally impacted computing in the world."

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, Hoagland said.

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That first RAMAC drive is thought to have gone to the San Francisco office of Crown Zellerbach, the world's second-largest paper company at the time. Like Hoagland, Jim Porter had originally ended up in San Jose, "but I decided it was a terrible place for a young man to start a business career, unless he wanted to pick prunes or apricots." The company, where he worked in marketing at the time, used the device for keeping track of sales, employee records, payrolls and inventories, he said.

Porter remembers that the computer room where the RAMAC was stored was three levels below Market Street. He said the disk system's head assembly moved "in and out and all over, and [had] a glass front so you could see what was going on."

By chance, after Porter left Crown Zellerbach in 1964, he went to work for other companies that were taking advantage of storage technology, including Memorex Products Inc. and Cartridge Television Inc., which made Cartrivision, the first VCR. "Movie moguls would say, 'Rent a movie? Are you out of your mind?'" he says. Zellerbach then moved on to CMX, a joint venture of CBS Corp. and Memorex, to develop a video editing system for $360,000 that was used by the CBS and NBC evening news. "Today, you can do everything CMX could do for $1,000 on a Macintosh," he said.

In the meantime, the storage industry itself was booming with more than 200 companies, many of them in what had then become known as Silicon Valley. Vendors were doubling the areal density -- the number of bits per square inch on the disk -- every year. Capacity was going up, size was shrinking, and prices were going down, from the 24-in. platters used in the RAMAC Disk Storage Unit to 14 in. to 8 in.

At that point, Porter said, Wang Laboratories Inc. came up with the revolutionary notion of putting a computer on top of the desk. But it thought 8-in. floppy drives were too big for that. So engineers from leading drive manufacturer Shugart & Associates met with Wang engineers in a dark bar in Boston and decided the next disk drive size should be 5 ¼ in. -- the size of a cocktail napkin. "Those became sacred dimensions for the next 10 years," Porter said, referring to the fact that Seagate Technology used those same dimensions for PC disk drives.

While prices and sizes continued to contract as capacities increased, IBM sold its disk drive business to Hitachi Ltd. for about $2 billion in 2003. That unit became Hitachi Global Storage Technologies. And now, those more than 200 vendors are down to eight or nine, with just Seagate, Hitachi Global Storage Technologies and Western Digital Corp. manufacturing disk drives in the U.S., said Bill Healy, senior vice president, who joined the company from IBM with the sale.

Hitachi scientists say that capacity will continue to double for at least the next 10 to 20 years, Healy said. Currently, disk drives are as small as 0.85 in. for MP3 players, ranging up to 3.5 in. for use in servers. A 1-in. drive today holds about 10GB, which in 20 years of doubling will reach a terabyte, he said. "In the size and shape of a domino, you could have a terabyte." Two billion disk drives have been sold to this point, with another 2 billion forecast in just the next four to five years, he said.

In celebration of the disk drive's 50th anniversary, Hitachi announced today that it has achieved a new areal density record of 345 gigabits per square inch using perpendicular magnetic recording technology. This represents an increase of more than 2.5 times the areal density of today's highest-capacity drives, the company said.

By 2009, Hitachi predicts that 345 gigabits per square inch would result in a 2TB 3.5-in. desktop drive, a 400GB 2.5-in. notebook drive or a 200GB 1.8-in. drive. In the first half of 2007, Hitachi expects to bring hard drive areal density half way to the 345 gigabits per square inch mark with a 1TB 3.5-in. product.

While other technologies -- most recently flash memory and holographic storage -- are starting to challenge it, the hard disk is still winning out on speed and cost, said Craig Butler, manager of product marketing for disk, storage-area networks and network-attached storage at IBM. "Over the entire history of the disk drive, people have been saying, 'If we can just get this other technology to work, it'll replace the disk drive.' And each time, disk drive companies have been able to keep the economics such that the disk drive was a better alternative."

Meanwhile, Hoagland wants to turn the original IBM lab into a museum and is heading up a project to restore a RAMAC. He said he hopes to demonstrate this week that it can still read 50-year-old data. Not that users writing data to hard disks today should expect to be able to read it in 2056. "No responsible person running a data center is going to trust data on hard drives forever," Butler said.

Click here to view the slide show

Click here to view the 50 Years of the Hard Drive slide show

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