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Remembering RAMAC
THE FORERUNNER OF TODAY'S HARD DRIVES BUILT 50 YEARS AGO IN DOWNTOWN SAN JOSE

By Michael Bazeley
San Jose Mercury News

 


Today's iPod-toting hipsters have no idea how much they owe to an unremarkable little building in downtown San Jose. It was there, at 99 Notre Dame Ave., nearly 50 years ago, that a small band of IBM engineers developed the RAMAC, the first system for storing data on magnetic disks. The refrigerator-size beast was a technological breakthrough, and it's considered by most to be the forerunner of today's hard drives.

 

The invention of this bulky assembly of 50 spinning platters is being honored tonight by a worldwide engineering association as a "milestone moment'' in engineering. It's an honor that could further help efforts to create a museum honoring the innovation performed at the former IBM lab. "This recognition moves it from being viewed as a piece of machinery to a revolutionary computer system,'' said Al Hoagland, director of the Institute for Information Storage Technology and a professor of electrical engineering at Santa Clara University.

 

In computing circles, the RAMAC's reputation is already well-established. Before the advent of magnetic disk storage, computers stored their information on rolls of magnetic tape or coded punch cards. Retrieving information could take hours or days. And banks and other companies often processed their data just once a week.

 

In 1952, East Coast-based IBM opened its first West Coast lab at the Notre Dame address in San Jose. Rey Johnson was installed as manager. The lab's team wasted little time making history. One of its first projects was to develop a storage device that could process data in real time. The result was a machine that took advantage of a new technique called the Random Access Method of Accounting and Control.

 

At the heart of the RAMAC machine was a 20-inch high spindle of 50 spinning disks. Two feet wide, the disks were coated with magnetic iron oxide paint, similar to that on the Golden Gate Bridge. A mechanical arm with a read/write head would move up and down alongside the spindle until it located the disk with the correct data, and then slide in between the spinning platters to scan the appropriate track. The whole process took a second.

 

The machine was innovative in several ways. Its 5 megabyte storage capacity was massively large for the time. And it allowed users to quickly dive into a stack of data and randomly gain access to the information they needed, a feat beyond the reach of punch cards and magnetic tape.

 

"It was a radical innovation,'' said Hoagland, who worked for IBM for 28 years. Transactions that might take days to process before could now be accomplished in minutes, Hoagland said. "It changed the way we handled banking, for instance,'' said Currie Munce, vice president of research at San Jose-based Hitachi Global Storage Technologies. "We never would have had the Web and what came with it without that high-speed random access.''

 

The RAMAC was a big success for IBM. Big Blue made more than 1,000 of the machines over a five-year period, helping establish the company's dominance in mainframe computing. Today, just a few of the original RAMACs are known to exist. One sits outside Hoagland's office on the third floor of the engineering building at Santa Clara University.

 

On loan from IBM, the machine is being restored by students. Two years into the project, the students have restored much of the machine's sheen and coaxed many of its key parts back into working order. Hoagland hopes to have a fully functional RAMAC by next year, in time for the 50th anniversary of its unveiling by IBM. ``At this point, I don't see any showstoppers,'' Hoagland said.

 

The RAMAC's specifications are laughable by today's standards. Some hard drives are as small as a quarter and can store 100 billion bits of data per square inch, 50 million times that of the RAMAC. Hitachi, for example, recently announced the development of "Mikey,'' a one-inch hard drive weighing just 14 grams and able to hold up to 10 gigabytes of data.

 

The company is also testing a new method of aligning data bits on hard disks vertically instead of horizontally. The new orientation could allow companies to increase hard drive storage capacity tenfold, Munce said. "I think things like micro-drives will change the way we consume digital entertainment,'' he said. Hoagland's goal is to preserve the legacy of the hard-disk innovation in San Jose. As director of the Magnetic Disk Heritage Center, he has been pushing to create a museum at 99 Notre Dame Ave.

 

He may get his wish. The San Jose City Council recently passed a resolution promising to begin discussions around the idea. And a couple of city council members are due at tonight's ceremony, organized by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. "My dream,'' Hoagland said, "is if you think of the RAMAC, you think of Rey Johnson and you think of 99 Notre Dame Ave.

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