The Hard Disk That Changed the World

If there's a bottle of vintage champagne you've been saving, next month is the time to pop it open: it's the 50th anniversary of hard-disk storage. Don't laugh. On Sept. 13, 1956, IBM shipped the first unit of the RAMAC (Random Access Method of Accounting and Control) and set in motion a process that would change the way we live.

The RAMAC, designed in Big Blue's San Jose, Calif., research center, is the ultimate ancestor of that 1.8-inch drive that holds 7,500 songs inside your pocket-size $299 iPod. Of course, the RAMAC would have made a lousy music player. The drive weighed a full ton, and to lease it you'd pay about $250,000 a year in today's dollars. Since it required a separate air compressor to protect the two moving "heads" that read and wrote information, it was noisy. The total amount of information stored on its 50 spinning iron-oxide-coated disks--each of them a pizza-size 24 inches--was 5 megabytes. That's not quite enough to hold two MP3 copies of Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog."

Yet those who beheld the RAMAC were astonished. "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."

That feature, and the fact that every year scientists have managed to compress more and more information on hard drives for less and less cost, has led to a revolution just as dramatic as the one triggered by the much more celebrated microprocessor. Massive storage has allowed huge businesses to thrive. Without astronomically capacious random-access hard disks, you couldn't imagine the likes of Google, eBay or Amazon. Yet the wizards in the storage field, who constantly fight the boundaries of physics to eke out more density on increasingly tiny disks, don't get respect. "Instead of Silicon Valley, they should call it Ferrous Oxide Valley," says Mark Kryder, chief technical officer of Seagate. "It wasn't the microprocessor that enabled the personal video recorder, it was storage . It's enabling new industries."

Experts agree that the amazing gains in storage density at low cost will continue for at least the next couple of decades, allowing cheap peta-bytes (millions of gigabytes) of storage to corporations and terabytes (thousands of gigs) to the home. Meanwhile, drives with mere hundreds of gigabytes will be small enough to wear as jewelry. "You'll have with you every album and tune you've ever bought, every picture you've ever taken, every tax record," says Bill Healy, an executive at Hitachi, which acquired IBM's storage business in 2003.

Unfortunately, all this digital baggage comes with some baggage of its own. Already we are waist-deep in concerns about piracy (because our disks can store thousands of songs) and privacy (because their disks can store so much information about us). When it costs almost nothing to store almost everything, what happens next? Kryder of Seagate and Healy of Hitachi assure us that new disk-drive features like built-in encryption will protect copyright holders and our own personal records. Can we believe them? Better drink that champagne.