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
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.
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.
"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.