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50 years of the hard drive

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Comment This week I attended an event at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View that celebrated the golden anniversary of the IBM RAMAC 305, the first hard disk drive storage system.

While the event seem well attended by various industry luminaries and at a least one TV station van, having my nine year-old son alongside me that evening helped keep everything in perspective. The museum is a gem in and of itself, and the fact that I have worked on equipment from many of the eras being preserved only served to remind me that I have been around this industry a lot longer than I care to admit. Of course, having my nine year-old looking at an adding machine from 1925 and asking me if it was an early model personal computer only goes to show how far this industry has come, as well as how much of its innovation we take for granted.

One could wax poetic about the changes witnessed over the past 50 years, when San Jose and all of Silicon Valley was the Valley of Hearts Delight and grew some of the best fruit available on the planet or when getting to San Francisco from San Jose was best accomplished via the Southern Pacific Railroad, not the Bayshore Freeway.

Nevertheless, just as IT ultimately changed the valley, the hard drive forever changed IT. Besides some home appliances, there are few products on the market today that still employ much the same theory of operation, if not simply miniaturized versions of same implementation, as they did five decades ago. The disk guys got this one right, but did they ever foresee the PC, laptop, or iPod? Probably not, they were more likely looking to invent personal jet packs that would fly you to San Francisco faster than the Coast Daylight and for less than $1.70 one way.

The hard drive changed the fundamental value proposition of information from being a serial listing of data, much a like phone book that can only be read forward from page 1, into a random access method, more akin to a Rolodex. From this point forth, we have never viewed data in the same way, and as a result we have digitized practically ever piece of information possible.

From this innovation there have been many positive commercial achievements, most recently of course the phenomenal explosion in personal music players, and much larger storage devices in laptop and personal computers, not to mention massive disk storage arrays at plummeting price points. From this, whole industries such as genomics have been created or at least radically altered, and of course the nearly ubiquitous downloading of music, video, and other content by anyone under the age of 30 onto the latest iPod, phone, or not yet named gizmo. But with the positives, come the negatives, and it is incumbent on each of us to remember to use technology for good, not evil.

One of the evening speakers from a large disk storage vendor made comments about how wonderful it would be when every event transpiring in the range of a micro camera would be economically recorded and stored. He noted examples of being able to see your child’s first step, even if you were not there, or capturing images of suspicious persons doing questionable things around your home and alerting your alarm company — these are all positive applications of stored information.

But the cheerleading around capture and storage everything all the time is just too Orwellian for me. Constant monitoring and recording of our every move could be a very likely and not terribly expensive scenario in the near future.

But to me, the cost of this mindset is enormous. The UK is a great example of better security achieved through the use of cameras, but as one of those treacherous colonists, I am not thrilled to think of a future where every public action I take will be recorded in perpetuity. As much as I would love to capture forever all of the important moment’s in my children’s lives, I would much rather know that the world they are going to experience is not one in which they will lose all privacy and personal rights.

In this time of paranoia that lets us rationally decide that carrying bottled water on to an aircraft is a precursor to a terrorist act, it behooves us to extensively consider the impact of our actions, especially when extolling the virtue of recording everything all the time. If this is the mindset that we have achieved through technology, then I will call up the Luddite society on my mobile phone and ask them to email me an application.

But all my Sci-Fi paranoia aside, 50 years of the hard drive is remarkable, if not unprecedented. As we look to the future, I wonder if my son will return to the Computer History Museum when he is 59 and gaze in amazement in what the last 100 years of disk technology has brought, He might find it really odd that I thought a 1TB 2.5 inch HDD would be cool, as he looks at relics of 10TB thumb drives and what else may have come. But then again, he might stop and ponder that 1925 adding machine once again, and remember the time when he first saw it, and how everything that was around it was so cool as well. Happy Birthday RAMAC. ®

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