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How Far Have Hard Drives Come In 50 Years? A Look Back At RAMAC

by Bill

You may not even be aware of it most of the time unless you pause to think about it, but almost every device you handle these days has some kind of hard drive in it or is connected to a system of hard drives via a computing cloud. Everything from telephones and tablets to coffee makers and computers make use of ubiquitous hard drive technology that continues to evolve at a break-taking pace. Technologists are fond of looking forward and attempting to predict the future, but as a year comes to a close we chose to take a look back instead at just how far hard drives have come along in the last fifty years.

Originally developed by IBM, during five years of research and development, and finally made public in 1956, the first hard drive was bigger than a refrigerator and weighed more than a ton. It was known as the IBM 305 “RAMAC” – shorthand for “Random Access Method of Accounting and Control.” The promotional video shown below gives you a great idea of the size and technological innovation that went into creating the first device of its kind.

To this day, the original RAMAC remains on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View California. The system utilized fifty vertically stacked disks covered in magnetic paint, spinning at speeds in excess of 1,200 RPM with a mechanical arm capable of storing or retrieving data from the disks by changing the magnetic orientation of particular locations on each of the disks and reading the present configurations.

Big Blue built the system “to keep business accounts up to date and make them available, not monthly or even daily, but immediately.” It was meant to rescue companies from a veritable blizzard of paper records, so adorably demonstrated in the film by a toy penguin trapped in a faux snow storm.

Before RAMAC, as the film explains, most businesses kept track of inventory, payroll, budgets, and other bits of business info on good old fashioned paper stuffed into filing cabinets. Or if they were lucky, they had a massive computer that could store data on spools of magnetic tape. But tape wasn’t the easiest to deal with. You couldn’t get to one piece of data on a tape without spooling past all the data that came before it.

Then RAMAC gave the world what’s called magnetic disk storage, which let you retrieve any piece of data without delay. The system’s hard drive included 50 vertically stacked disks covered in magnetic paint, and as they spun around — at speeds of 1,200 rpm — a mechanical arm could store and retrieve data from the disks. The device stored data by changing the magnetic orientation of a particular spot on a disk, and then retrieve it at any time by reading the orientation at a rate of 100,000 bits per second. The entire one ton device held a grand total of 5 MB of data. Now barely enough to record a single music file and nowhere near the storage necessary to handle video or the other modern day uses of digital storage – in 1956 it represented a virtually unlimited amount of storage for accounting departments that wanted to access plain numerical values quickly in the days before spreadsheets were even a distant imaginary advancement.

RAMAC was the genesis of tech that lead to almost every hard drive available today along with software applications like the relational database which made information storage and retrieval the killer app of computing in the 1980s.

When the RAMAC was installed at the Mountain View museum, remnant data was discovered on the drive from a Canadian insurance company along with some statistical information from the 1963 Major League Baseball World Series. According to researchers “The RAMAC data is thermodynamically stable for longer than the expected lifetime of the universe”, and while 5mb of storage in a one ton machine may now seem like a waste of space – if it wasn’t for RAMAC and the advancements it spawned, you’d still be reading this article on a piece of paper while trying not to smudge the ink on the page.

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