The Hard Drive

Last week, my 85-year old grandfather stumbled across an old hard drive I had laying around. He picked it up and asked “what is this?”

While computers in general, as well as their components, are often taken for granted – probably the biggest is memory and storage. We’ve come a long ways from storing our records and programs on punched cards or on a magnetic reel-to-reel tape. We’ve also come a long ways since using magnetic core memory systems.

The hard drive is one of the many things that we today take for granted. They keep getting bigger and bigger in capacity, yet they keep getting smaller. Now, the technology is being quickly replaced by solid-state drives (SSDs) that typically share the same interfaces and physical characteristics of a standard hard drive, but are much faster and more efficient.

So, how did we get from storing our programs in big tubs filled with punched cards to recording everything from pictures to music to programs on hard drives?

IBM and the RAMAC

The RAMAC 305, introduced in September 1956, was the first computer to feature a “hard drive.” (Source: US Army – Red River Arsenal)

As with many things computer-related, especially those discussed on this site (with the ThinkPad), IBM had a huge influence in the creation of the hard drive. Except the first hard drive wasn’t called a hard drive, and was much bigger physically while not even containing enough data for a modern digital picture.

IBM researchers in San Jose, California released the RAMAC 305 in September 1956. At the time, the only other methods of storage was the reel-to-reel tape system, drum storage, or tubs of punched cards, appropriately called a “tub file.”

A RAMAC storage mechanism in its case. (Source: Silicon Valley Sleuth)

The RAMAC, which stood for “Random Access Method of Accounting and Control” – more specifically its “350 disk storage unit”, can be considered the great-grandfather to today’s hard drives. They used multiple magnetic disks – fifty in total – coupled with a head that would move along the disk very similar to a modern hard disk drive. The RAMAC 305’s hard drive could contain up to 5 million alphanumeric characters.

The first user of the RAMAC was Chrysler, who used it to replace a tub file for the MOPAR division’s inventory. Later, IBM used it at the 1960 Olympic Winter Games to record and print out scores.

In addition to the 305 RAMAC being the first computer to include a magnetic disk storage system, it was the last IBM computer to use vacuum tubes.

IBM 1311 and Later Mainframe Drives

The IBM 1311 magnetic drive system was introduced in 1962. (Photo: Computer History Museum)

In October 1962, IBM released the 1311, a disk storage drive that contained discs that could be replaced with another disk. For instance, if you wanted to switch from inventory to payroll, all you had to do would be switch the discs. The 1311 was mostly found in smaller System/360 and 1400-series systems, including the 1401.

Later mainframe disc systems were similar to this, including the 2314. The 2314 was mainly found on System/360 installations. The computer could address up to 8 different disks at a time.

These later magnetic disc drives found for mainframes were often cloned by other companies, such as Memorex and Telex.

Microcomputer Drives

Along with smaller computer systems (microcomputers), like the IBM-PC, came smaller hard disk drives.

A Seagate 10MB drive, which would’ve originally been used in an IBM PC-XT from 1983. The Seagate 10MB utilized MFM technology. (Photo: Terapeak)

Seagate (originally Shugart Technology) and Western Digital were both early manufacturer of smaller drives. The IBM PC-XT originally featured a 10MB Seagate drive, while Apple introduced the ProFile hard drive system for use with the Apple LISA.

Many of these early drives utilized a technology known as MFM, or Modified Frequency Modulation. You can read more about MFM and MMFM technology here.

Over time, drive capacities grew while drive size continued to get smaller and smaller. Today, we have solid-state drives and flash memory that can hold a vast amount of data in small spaces. Just think: the hard drives that consumed the space of an average refrigerator could only hold 5 million characters, while server racks consuming the same space today can hold tens to hundreds of terabytes!