Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) live inside almost each and every laptop and desktop computer on the planet. They were introduced by IBM in 1956, and were used in computer storage virtually ubiquitously up until around 2008. They’ve changed drastically over their fifty-something-year history. Let’s look at how.
Patent 3,503,060: IBM shipped the IBM 305 RAMAC system in 1956. It included the world’s first disk storage, but it wasn’t until 1970 that Patent number 3,503,060 was issued – viewed today by the majority of electronic engineers as the official initial HDD patent.
The 305 RAMAC system contained the world-first IBM 350 Disk File – a stack of 24-inch platters with a storage limit of five million bits (pieces of information, traditionally characters). Things moved fast; by the sixties, IBM had produced the IBM 1301 Disk Storage Unit, capable of holding 28 million bits per module.
The 1980s: The beginning of the PC era resulted in hundreds of incremental revolutions within the HDD technology sphere. Marking the opening of the decade was the first post-gigabyte drive: the refrigerator-sized 2.52GB IBM 3380. In today’s money, it was priced at just over $100,000.
Crucially, it was at this time – 1986, to be precise – that the first HDD connection standard, SCSI, was agreed upon. This set the stage for rapid and sustained development in creating consumer-centric HDD options.
Brave new millennium: The 90s saw a variety of HDD technology advances, among them Seagate’s first fluid-bearing hard drive, which greatly increased the anticipated lifespan for drives. IBM continued to push the storage fold – eventually hitting the ‘137GB Addressing Space Barrier’. This theoretical maximum on HDD sizes came about due to the classical limit on information address spaces, and wasn’t broken until 2002.
2003 saw the introduction of Serial ATA (SATA), a connection type offering higher read/write access speeds across boards, and easier installation of drives. It also opened up the possibility of connecting drives in RAID format, which permitted for both redundancy (spare disk images in case of failure) and still faster read/write access times (depending on configuration). By 2005, the SATA 3Gbit/second connection type was standardised.
The modern world: It’s amazing to think that the first 750GB drive was only manufactured in 2006. Laptops have demanded smaller and smaller drives since the early nineties, and the current standard is for 2.5” drive installations (as opposed to their desktop counterparts, which traditionally take 3.5” disk drives). Since then progress has marched on inexorably – Seagate introduced the first 4TB (Tera-Byte – that’s approximately 4096GB) drive in 2011, but it seems that the size race is no longer the big agenda.
So where are we now? Drive manufacturers have moved away from huge single drives (though these are still being procured) and towards more efficient read/write access times and scalability, either achieved through RAID connections or use of newer, smaller SSD (Solid-State Drive) technology. And this is where our story ends, for now – SSD technology is still reasonably pricey and HDDs are still accepted as King in the laptop manufacturing industry. We need only look back over the timeline above, however, to see just how quickly the landscape can change.