Inside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, sits an odd-looking, refrigerator-sized contraption that could have been created by an out-of-control set designer for "Lost in Space."
But this homely piece of hardware was the guest of honor at a celebration Tuesday night on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the first computer hard disk drive.
On Sept. 13, 1956, IBM launched the RAMAC (Random Access Memory for Accounting and Control) 305 and RAMAC 350, two models of a disk drive system that could store a whopping 5MB of data.
At a briefing for the press earlier this week, Barry Rudolph, a vice president with IBM's storage and Technology group, said his PowerPoint presentation about the history of hard-drive technology would be too big to store on the RAMAC.
About 400 computer industry veterans and others attending the celebration at the museum toasted the golden anniversary of the technology that advanced the computer industry and continues to do so today.
"The hard disk! How many technologies ever last 50 years?" said Steve Wozniak, cofounder of Apple Computer Inc., whose hometown of San Jose, California, is also the hometown of the disk drive. "It's an amazing invention that changed the world."
The RAMAC was capable of storing 2,000 bits of data on a square inch of disk space, a measure known as its areal density.
On Wednesday, Hitachi Global Storage Technologies Inc., which bought IBM's hard disk drive business in 2003, said it has achieved an areal density of 345Gb (345 billion bits) per square inch in its laboratories, using a technique that stacks magnetic particles perpendicular to the disk, rather than laying parallel to it.
At that kind of density, a 2TB (2 trillion bits) disk drive for desktops, a 400GB drive for notebooks, or a 200GB mini-drive like those used in portable music players could be on the market by 2009, Hitachi said.
Given those extraordinary capacities, a 5MB RAMAC seems inadequate, but back then such technology was revolutionary.
"The first disk drive I saw was the one of the first ones IBM made," said Jim Porter, former publisher of a Silicon Valley disk drive industry report. In 1956, Porter worked at Crown-Zellerbach, a former paper products manufacturer that took delivery of one of the first RAMACs and used it to track the company's payroll, billing and other accounting functions.
"Because of the random access memory, it was much more cost-efficient than tapes or drums for data storage," Porter said.
With all the disk drives in all the computers, servers and other storage devices available today, businesses aren't having as much trouble storing data as much as they are organizing, retrieving and analyzing it to expand their businesses.
Earlier this month, at IBM's Almaden Labs research center in San Jose, company researchers discussed what the next 50 years of data storage could hold.
"We want to take that landfill of data and turn it into a gold mine," said Dilip Kandlur, director of storage systems at IBM Research.