Happy Birthday to the hard drive

September 13, 1956 was an important date in computer history. That's when IBM shipped its first hard drive. As Steven Levy tells us in Newsweek, it was the size of two refrigerators and weighed a ton. Lot figurately. Literally. Leasing cost $250,000 a year (2006 dollars). But it was considered a wonder:

"It was about the size of two large refrigerators, about as tall as a person stands, and though it used vacuum tubes, it was always running," recalls Jim Porter, who worked at Crown Zellerbach in San Francisco in the mid-'50s and would proudly take people to the basement to see what he claims was the very first unit delivered by IBM. "It really turned the tide [in the Information Age]," he says. "It was the first to offer random access, whereas before you would have to wind a tape from one end to the other to access data." (Steven Levy, Newsweek)

I remember the first hard drive I ever saw. Well I sort of remember it. It was much smaller and I don't know its capacity. I was a very junior person in a cutting edge computer lab at a famous research university and we all used the single DEC PDP-9 that had 48K of core memory: literally. 48,000 wound ferrite cores. The machine took up a room bigger than the entire floor space of most 2 bedroom apartments in the college town where it was nestled. We booted the machine with paper tape after setting switches by hand. We used a magnetic tape reader for programs and data, which was quite advanced, but the hard disk was off limits to most of us, so I can't tell you any more about it.

When I got my first personal computer, in 1981 (an Apple II+), it also had 48K on RAM but now it fit on a desktop. Quite a bit of progress in 13 years. But I had to buy a 5.25" floppy drive as an extra and use a TV set for a monitor. I thought it was cheap at $2200. I didn't get a hard drive for my Mac with the 9" screen until 1990-something. Mrs. R. had a kid working for her that moonlighted at a computer store. He got a 10 MB hard drive for her at half price -- $1000. She gave it to me as a birthday present. I was thrilled but couldn't imagine how I'd use up all that storage.

Now I'm sitting in front of a machine about the same size as my Apple II+ but it has 1.5 GB of RAM and a 120GB hardrive with another little 40 GB drive connected to it that fits in my shirt pocket. That means I've got 150 times as much RAM as I had on my first hardrive and 16,000 times as much hard disk storage -- plus a 20 inch flat panel monitor, all for less than I paid for my first desktop computer. That's without even considering the increase in CPU horsepower. And I'm just about average. At the office I've got even more.

Now they're talking about petabyte storage (a petabyte is a million gigabytes). Most of us will have to get by with terabytes (thousands of gigabytes). Petabytes are for the big boys. At least for now.

But there's no doubt we'll need petabytes at home soon. Probably for the next version of Microsoft Office.


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My first hard drive was a Seagate 10Mb stepper motor. It cost me $AUS4000. A few years later I ran a speed diagnostic on it and it was too slow to give a reading... sigh.

"48K of core memory: literally. 48,000 wound ferrite cores"

Core memory planes were among the first assembly jobs outsourced to lower cost labor areas. In the '60s Control Data Corp had such a factory they called the Hong Kong Core House.

By tympanachus (not verified) on 13 Sep 2006 #permalink

tympanachus, any pictures of this stuff?

It would be great to see some factory floor photos!

Wistful nostalgia time: My mining industry workplace in the 1986 progressed their engineering design work from a 14 yr old mini frame Data General Nova 4 with 10mb 14" hard disk cartridges to a Sun 2 Workstation with 'only' 8mb of combined disk and RAM memory, a 17" mono monitor and an optical mouse! It was like the scene in 2001 where the apes discover tools.

In 1989 I had a Toshiba 'portable' with 640mb RAM and a 10MB harddrive. On that drive I had AutoCAD, Lotus 123, Wordperfect, PCTools, Frameworks, dBase and a few other utilities and programs. And that computer accomplished tasks far quicker than my current 2GB RAM, 150GB Harddrive, 3.2GHz monster does. Progress!

Ah the joys of programming with punch cards, great for confetti for HS football games but if you made a mistake, it took hours to find it.
I used to be able to read those things ages ago.
When I started in computers (1981) we used a VAX-like computer with the neatest hard drives, I won't tell you what the IS staff used them for, but it was not just storing data as those things could vibrate like the dickens. ;^D
I tell my daughter, who is in the market for a lap top for college, all about the rooms full of computer components and she just stares bug eyed at how big they were. I get a big kick out of telling her how small the storage capacity was and how HUGE one of those old machines would have to be to have the same as the lap tops she is contemplating purchasing.
Being old can be fun sometimes!

By G in INdiana (not verified) on 14 Sep 2006 #permalink

My spouse-to-be and I had pic-nicks at Citi Corp. computer center in Westwood, near UCLA. Baby sitting the computers was very important because they processed the bank data for all of their customers' accounts. All of them. The computers used tape, cards, and banks refrigerators which were filled with hard drives that were the size of small TVs with handles. One of the days, while eating lunch in the computer rooms - the computers housed in the immense office building, took up several floors - started blinking lights and ringing horrible bells. Everyone blanched and then ran in all directions. It scared the crap out of me! I thought the place was ready to blow! Loosing data was very serious because redundancy was mostly impossible.

The monstrously large storage units that we use - and companies use today, is for redundancy in the event of component failure. Failure happens all the time.

Also, around that time I met the head of Boroughs International ( you know, I can't spell the name of this computer company nor can I find it on Google - ah.. time passes and the giants die, too) at Caltech. He used to talk about his buddies at IBM who made the 'Big Machines' He used to demonstrate what BIG was by bouncing about with out-stretched arms, like a albatross, just to tease Watson Jr. at these functions ... Back then, they were THE guys who did this stuff. My soon-to-be also had to take the discs, which looked for all the world like wedding cakes under glass, across the country every week - by jet - to update New York's data base (another foot ball field of computers) ... Internet has changed that, too. By the way, those discs carried the same amount of data that can be stored on a chip, today. And those chips can have multiples of those 'cakes' by the tens of thousands.