The astounding evolution of the hard drive

Invented more than 50 years ago, the hard drive has transformed from a room-size appliance capable of storing just a few megabytes of data, to a pocket-size device that can stash terabytes.

Digital storage gets small (and huge)

From the room-size monster that cost a king's ransom to the diminutive device that today costs just a few bucks, the evolution of the hard drive is an amazing story of an industry that's continually delivering more for less.

In just 30 years, the cost of storing a gigabyte of data has plunged from more than $100,000 to mere pennies. Allow us to present the wonderful and amazing history of the hard drive.

IBM 305 RAMAC Disk System

IBM's 305 RAM disk system is the distant ancestor of the hard drive we know today.

The drive was introduced in 1956 as part of IBM's 305 RAMAC (Random Access Method of Accounting and Control). It could hold a whopping 5MB of data on 50 24-inch-diameter disks. The hard drive alone was the size of a refrigerator, and the entire unit weighed more than a ton. The system cost $10,000 per megabyte. But for its day, that steep price tag was fully justified by the system's ability to recall data from storage in just 600 milliseconds. IBM sold more than 1000 units during the storage system's five-year lifespan.

Check out this short promotional video from IBM about the research and development of the RAMAC.

IBM 1301 Disk Storage Unit

IBM replaced RAMAC with the model 1301 Disk Storage Unit in 1961. It used a separate read/write head for each surface, eliminating the need to pull the head out each time it needed to access a different disk.

The model 1301 could hold 28MB and was the first drive to use aerodynamically designed heads that could fly over the surface of a disk on a thin layer of air, improving the access time to 180 milliseconds.

You could buy one for a measly $115,500, or lease one for $2100 a month. Come on, you know your business needs it!

IBM 1311 Disk Storage Drive

IBM pioneered many hard-drive advancements and innovations, including the first removable disk pack.

The IBM 1311 Disk Storage Drive, introduced in 1962, was capable of storing up to 2.6MB of data on six 14-inch platters. Each disk pack weighed 10 pounds.

The model 1311 was so successful that it went through several redesigns and remained on the market until 1975.

IBM 3340 Direct Access Storage Facility (aka "Winchester")

IBM introduced several disk-drive design innovations with the IBM 3340 that are still in use today, including low-mass read/write heads and lubricated disks housed inside an air-tight enclosure.

The “Winchester” nickname arose from the development engineers who referred to it as a "30-30," because its two spindles provided storage capacity of 30MB each. (The famous Winchester lever-action rifle uses a .30-30 cartridge.)

Its new technology enabled IBM to shrink the machine to the size of an appliance, while reducing its price tag to just $87,600.

IBM 3380 Direct Access Storage Device

IBM reached the gigabyte storage threshold with the introduction in 1980 of its IBM 3380 Direct Access Storage device.

The system delivered 2.52GB of capacity, with a data transfer rate of 3MB per second.

Depending on the features you selected, a Model A 3380 DASD would have cost between $97,650 and $142,200.

Seagate ST-506

While IBM continued to develop refrigerator-size storage devices for mainframe computers, Seagate popped onto the scene to shrink the devices to fit inside personal computers.

Swap your PC’s 5.25-inch floppy disk drive for Seagate’s $1500 ST-506, and you could permanently store up to 5MB of data on your brand-new PC!

The drive depended on a controller card that had to be plugged into the motherboard, but it eliminated shuffling between disks to run the PC's operating system, then run your application software, and finally access your data. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Toshiba Tanba-1 2.5-inch hard drive

Early portable PCs looked more like luggage than computers. The introduction of PrairieTek's 2.5-inch hard drive in 1988 was a key milestone in achieving the sleek, sexy forms that notebooks boast today. The model 220 required 30 percent less space than 3.5-inch drives and delivered 20MB of storage (10MB on each platter).

In 1991, Toshiba unveiled the 2.5-inch Tanba-1, shown here, which delivered 63MB of storage.

Drives with 2.5-inch form factors remain a common feature of modern notebooks, although higher-end models boast solid-state drives.

The IBM Microdrive

IBM introduced the 170MB Microdrive in 1999. Featuring platters that were just 1 inch in diameter, the mechanism could be plugged into a CompactFlash Type II slot.

Hitachi acquired IBM's hard-drive business in 2002, and other manufacturers—including Seagate—began building drives using the same form factor and interface. Apple used an embedded version of the drive in its iPod mini.

Capacities had increased to 8GB by 2006, but this technology has since been supplanted by solid-state storage.

Seagate Barracuda Serial ATA V

Ah, now this drive looks familiar. Seagate's Barracuda Serial ATA V, released in 2003, was one of the first drives to depend on the new SATA (Serial Advance Technology Attachment) interface standard. The earlier interface, PATA, used a parallel interface.

The new Barracuda drive featured up to two 60GB platters to deliver an astounding 120GB of storage, and it cost only $170.

Western Digital Raptor

Western Digital originally developed the Raptor in 2003 for enterprise servers, but PC-gaming enthusiasts quickly latched onto the high-speed drive.

With platters that spin at 10,000 rpm—versus the 7200 rotational speed that more-common drives use—the Raptor (Velociraptor in its current incarnation) remains one of the highest-performing mechanical hard drives on the market.

While most gamers are more enamored with SSDs these days, Western Digital’s speedy drive remains a popular component for tackling such data-intensive workloads as video editing and 3D rendering.

Toshiba MK2001MTN

Toshiba announced this adorable little device in 2006. Inducted into the Guinness World Records book in 2005 as the world's smallest hard drive, the MK2001MTN packed 2GB of storage into its 0.85-inch size.

By the time Toshiba shipped the drive in volume, its capacity had doubled to 4GB. The drive was used in mobile phones, cameras, and digital media players.

Solid-state drives

While the very first SSD was manufactured way back in 1976, it took another 35 years for the drives to become remotely mainstream.

Samsung introduced a 2.5-inch, 32GB model as a drop-in replacement for laptop hard drives in 2006, and SanDisk introduced a similar drive a year later. These quiet, speedy devices were just the ticket if you could afford their $699 price tags.

The familiar cycle of ever-increasing capacity and ever-decreasing prices has rendered SSDs (almost) universally affordable today.

What's coming down the pike?

We all dig the cloud, but the best way to keep your digital data from prying eyes is to store it locally. So it's good news that hard-drive capacities continue to expand.

Seagate recently announced its intent to ship a 5TB drive in 2014, and a 20TB drive by 2020.

Who would ever need that much storage? By then, everybody!

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