In praise of hard drives:

IBM introduced the hard drive (RAMAC) in 1956; it stored 5 MB in an enclosure the size of a refrigerator, and cost $150 thousand. In the next 45 years, hundreds of companies entered the industry and went tits up or were bought out as new formats drove out the old; by 2000 only a handful of companies were in the business. IBM soldiered on, responsible for almost every significant breakthrough (including giant magnetoresistance, for which Stuart Parkin was unjustly denied the Nobel in physics in 2007. But it was losing money on every unit an industry with razor-thin margins and huge capital costs. I was long gone from the Valley by the time Hitachi bought it out, and I don’t know why they thought they’d could make money at it. Turns out, they couldn’t.

So, today you can get a 1 TB drive for $300 . Per MB, adjusted for inflation, that’s about a billionfold improvement in value—and that’s not accounting for huge improvements in data-transfer rates, power consumption and, umm, portability. (That’s an IBM-developed hard drive in your 80 GB iPod you listen to on the plane; here’s a RAMAC being put onto a plane.)

The “end of the hard drive” (when data density reaches its physical limits) has been five years away, for the last fifteen years. It still is. At IBM Almaden, while I was basically a grease monkey working on disks and motors, my data-storage colleagues were working on holographic materials and atomic-force microscopy. The HDD guys are gone, but the mad scientists are still there, and I’ll bet that one day you’ll have them to thank when you have the MGM Films library, in fully-immersive 3-D, on your 1 PB iPod.

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