Just As I Thought

The big anniversary


No, I’m not going to join the hype over September 11 today. No, instead, let’s talk about a different anniversary: the 50th anniversary of the hard disk.

No, I’m not going to join the hype over September 11 today. We’re all being bombarded by it, mostly as a political opportunity by the unscrupulous right. Adding my recollections of that day — where I was, how I got home to my house near the Pentagon, the pictures I took of the smoke plume over my neighborhood, connections to people on that plane — would add nothing new to the saga and just increase the maudlin atmosphere.

No, instead, let’s talk about a different anniversary: the 50th anniversary of the hard disk.

We all use them every day, even if we don’t have a computer — they’re hard at work everywhere. And they were invented right here in San Jose in 1956 (wow, doesn’t that seem early?) at IBM.

Fifty years ago, a 5MB hard drive looked like this:

And just two years ago, an 8GB hard drive looked like this:

Now, my math isn’t very good, but I believe that the smaller drive holds 1,600 times more information that the huge 1956 behemoth. And 8GB is a very small amount of space these days…

The amount of information stored on the modern hard drive is 100 million times greater than it was 50 years ago, and the $30 billion industry is headed into a boom where users put ever more data — photos, songs, videos — onto ever-smaller devices.

Dave Wickersham, chief operating officer for Seagate Technology, the world’s largest maker of disk drives, with headquarters in Scotts Valley (Santa Cruz County), compared the advancement in disk drives with that in automobiles. A car in 1956 cost about $2,500, could hold five people, weighed a ton, and could go as fast as 100 mph. If the auto industry had kept the same pace as disk drives, a car today would cost less than $25, hold 160,000 people, weigh half a pound and travel up to 940 mph.

It all started with an invention from IBM’s research lab in San Jose, which the public caught its first glimpse of on Sept. 13, 1956, when Big Blue unveiled its 305 RAMAC machine. It marked the first time a computer had magnetic disk storage.

… It’s not as though the breakthrough made things any smaller. According to Hitachi’s Healy, the RAMAC weighed a ton, was the size of a double refrigerator, and relied on 50 spinning platters. It cost $50,000, and held 5 MB of information — roughly the equivalent of one song on a modern iPod. (A 60-GB iPod holds about 15,000 songs.)

The credit for the breakthrough generally goes to Reynold Johnson, who died in 1998 at age 92. Johnson, who earlier had invented the device used to grade multiple choice tests still in use today, was hired by IBM to establish a lab on the West Coast, which he did in 1952, when he opened a small office at 99 Notre Dame Ave. in San Jose.

“He had no idea of what he was going to do,” said Hoagland, who left UC Berkeley to join Johnson’s team. “The company had no idea. They didn’t expect much out of him anyway.”

Hoagland fell into his historic role as well. “I claim this, but I can’t prove it: I drew the short straw,” he said. As a grad student at Berkeley, most of the engineers wanted to work on logic design, and Hoagland wound up working on the memory.

He soon was doubling as a consultant to IBM, and in 1956, he joined Johnson’s team full time.

“Rey was the kind of guy who, if you had a good idea, he would encourage you,” Hoagland said. “He was one of these inventive creative visionary types who if he believed something, he didn’t abandon it.”

Johnson was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan. Hoagland is now working to preserve the legacy by trying to get the boxy little white building at 99 Notre Dame Ave. turned into a museum.

The building, which has been declared a city landmark, is used by Santa Clara County Superior Court for child support cases, and Hoagland says it’s likely to be vacated. “They have three full-time security guards for a couple of little courtrooms,” he said.

He would rather see it turn into the Magnetic Disk Heritage Center. For the time being, he’s working on getting the original RAMAC back into working order at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

“It’s the biggest thing ever to occur in San Jose,” Hoagland said proudly. “It preceded the semiconductor being out here.” [San Francisco Chronicle]

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