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50 years of hard drives

Posted by Michael Bloch in online world (Tuesday September 12, 2006 )

When I started fiddling around with hard drives and computers in general over a decade ago, I had very little cash. The best I could get were second hand 20 megabyte MFM/SCSI drives that were around the size and weight of a house brick – at times I had to run them outside of the PC casing. Needless to say, it was quite a messy affair.

I distinctly remember the rather loud sound of kerchunk, kerchunk, kerchunk as the drive heads read the platters and thinking how wonderful it would be to own one of those new-fangled 180 megabyte Conner drives which cost around $500 at the time :).

Back then, I felt like I was dealing with some of the earliest hard drives around; but the first hard drive was actually rolled out 50 years ago – September 1956.

The IBM System 305 was the first computer with a hard drive component, known as the IBM 350 Disk Storage system. The 350 component had a 50 platter stack with each platter being over 2 feet in diameter. The platters spun at around 1200 rpm and if one of those suckers flew off, I imagine that it could have taken your head off quite easily. Today’s drives spin at around 5,000 RPM and are somewhat smaller :). The data transfer rate of the 350 was under 9000 characters per second – manufacturers of some modern drives claim transfer rates of up to 3 gigabits per second.

The unit weighed in at around a ton and from all that, the IBM 350 Disk Storage system held what was then considered to be a humungous amout of data – 5 megabytes. That’s about the same size as some MP3 files. To lease one of these monsters from IBM back then cost $35,000 a year – that’s well over a quarter of a million dollars today.

You can see a photo of the IBM 350 unit and platter stack here. To give you a better idea of the size, it could just fit through a standard doorway sideways.

50 years on and we’ve come a long way – still, I do sometimes miss the kerchunk sound of my old drives from time to time… very briefly :).


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