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History of the Hard Drive: Looking Back From 2023

Hard drives have become a widely adopted form of data storage and are in almost all computers in use today. However, they weren’t always around and early iterations certainly weren’t as powerful as the ones we use now. In this article, we’ll take a look back at the history of hard drives to see how far we’ve come and take a peek at what’s next.

Brian Murray
By Brian Murray (Writer)
— Last Updated: 2021-08-21T10:46:24+00:00 Facts checked by Elisabeth Ivey

It’s hard to believe that modern computing has only been around for a few decades, considering that most of us use or even need computers to do our work and for recreation. A major part of any computer is the ability to store information, usually in the form of a hard disk drive. Today, we’re taking a look at the history of hard drives to examine how they came to be and how far they’ve come.

Key Takeaways:

  • In only a few short decades, hard drives went from massive room-filling devices that literally weighed a ton to something small enough to carry around in your pocket.
  • Hard drives were invented by a team of IBM engineers in San Jose in the 1950s.
  • The main technology competitors nowadays to hard drives are solid state drives and cloud storage.

After we appreciate the progress the technology has made, we’ll take a brief look ahead at some newer forms of storage that might soon usurp the current king of information preservation.

  • 08/21/2021

    Added more information about solid state drives. 

  • The first hard drive capable of storing an entire gigabyte was the IBM 3380, released in 1980. However, this machine was the size of a refrigerator and cost tens of thousands of dollars.

  • Prior to the hard drive, there were two widely adopted forms of data storage: magnetic core memory, which was fast but expensive, and magnetic tape, which was cheaper but much slower.

  • The hard disk drive was invented by IBM to satisfy the need for faster and more affordable storage than the tape and magnetic core storage used at the time.

  • Hard drives were invented by a team of engineers working at IBM under the leadership of Reynold Johnson. The San Jose–based team wanted to create a form of storage that was faster than tape, but cheaper than magnetic core memory.

In the Beginning: The History of Hard Drives

Prior to the invention of hard drives, most data was stored in one of two ways. The first option was what we now call magnetic core memory (simply referred to as main memory at the time). Magnetic core memory was much like modern RAM in that it allowed for quick access but was very expensive per unit of data.

magnetic core
Making magnetic core memory was a time-consuming process that required trained hands to assemble. 

This was because magnetic core memory was made up of a sort of woven metal wire mesh with small magnetic rings placed within the weave. Building it was a time-consuming, manual process that had to be done by trained hands, which made the finished product prohibitively expensive for storing large amounts of data. 

Since each of the magnetic rings stored only a single binary bit of information, this also meant that the devices would have to be quite large and heavy to store any significant amount of data.

tape drive
Tape drives used a long reel of magnetic tape to store information, making them very slow to access files. 

If the data you wanted to access happened to be at the end of the tape, you’d have to wait for the tape to wind itself all the way to the location before it could read the information. This led to slow response times and slow read and write times.

Who Invented the Hard Disk Drive?

In 1953, IBM recognized the need for a form of data storage that was both quickly readable and affordable for large amounts of information. To this end, the IBM team — based in San Jose and led by Reynold Johnson — began development of the first hard disk drive.

By 1956, the product was made public and IBM introduced the IBM 350 RAMAC that, somewhat ironically, stood for “random access method of accounting and control.” By today’s computing standards, hard drives are far from “random access” and are actually the slower form of data storage on our computers.

However, at the time, the quickly spinning disk drives — along with later designs that used multiple read-write heads — allowed data to be located and read on the disks much more quickly than the competing tape drives.

Tape drives, sometimes measuring hundreds of meters in length, could take 50 seconds or more to locate the data that needed to be accessed, while an early disk drive could do the same in under a second, even with only a single read-write head.

The Hard Drive Evolution

Let’s take a look at how the hard drive evolved over time.

Change in Physical Size

The IBM RAMAC had a massive 24-inch platter. Each RAMAC drive had 50 platters stacked on top of one another with enough space for the access arms to move between them to read and write data. The IBM 305 computer that powered the drives was itself behemoth of a machine, weighing in at around a ton.

IBM is still a powerhouse today in the world of tech and pushes many advancements in computing. 

A standard IBM 305 RAMAC computer would be hooked up to multiple RAMAC drives and the entire setup would occupy a room as large as 30 by 50 feet. Clearly, the hard disk drive technology was not ready for personal computers.

Progress was very rapid, and by the 1980s, Seagate, a company that is still a very big player in the hard drive and data storage market, had developed a 5.25-inch drive that would open up the use of hard drives in personal computers. This also became the standard size for things like floppy disk drives.

hard drive form factors
Hard drives have gotten much smaller over time, while also being able to store significantly more data.

In 1983, a company called Rodime released the first 3.5-inch disk drive, which is a form factor still widely in use today. Later, in 1988, PrairieTek released the first 2.5-inch drive bay, which accounts for the other popular form factor used today. Since then, hard drives have been largely standardized into one of these two sizes and most improvements have been either in storage capacity or cost.

Change in Capacity

The original IBM RAMAC disk drives could store a mere 3.75 megabytes (MB) of data, despite its monumental size. Much like the progress made in hard disk drive size, the storage capacity of these devices progressed with remarkable speed. 

By 1961, Bryant Computer Products was offering a hard disk drive that could store up to 205MB, but these devices were larger than the already massive RAMAC drives. By the ’80s, the more reasonable form factors were able to store more data than the massive RAMAC drives, with the Seagate ST506 storing a modest 10MB but in a compact 5.25-inch form factor.

hard disk drive hdd
Today, even consumer-grade drives can hold many terabytes of information, an unthinkable amount of data at the time of the hard drive’s invention.

In 1988, the PT220 was introduced, which was the first 2.5-inch drive and stored 20MB. By the end of the 1990s, hard disk drives with a gigabyte of capacity became more and more common. Today, most drives have at least a full terabyte of data storage, with some high-capacity drives offering as much as 16TB of space.

Change in Cost

Naturally, when a new technology hits the market, the cost is prohibitive and the applications for it are limited. The IBM RAMAC is a good example of this, with an initial price of $34,700 in 1957, which works out to about $340,000 in today’s currency.

hard drive
Modern hard drive platters spin at thousands of revolutions per minute with the read-write heads just millimeters away. 

With its 3.75MB storage capacity, this means you would pay $80 billion in today’s currency for 1TB of storage. Today, you can find 1TB hard disk drives on sale for less than $50. Overall, hard disk drives have seen huge improvements in size, storage capacity and cost, thanks to several decades of design improvements and iteration.

The modern hard drive has also been simplified in some ways compared to earlier hard drive models, meaning there are fewer modes of failure such as dying servos or an out-of-alignment platter. 

Early hard drives were incredibly fragile, while today we can put hard disk drives into portable devices like laptops and not have to worry too much about damaging or destroying the device or data. However, it’s always a wise idea to backup your data, since drive failures are not yet entirely a thing of the past.

Are Hard Drives a Thing of the Past?

As technology races forward, new and better things have emerged on the market. While hard drives still retain a lot of relevance in today’s data storage landscape, promising new contenders are eating up more and more of the market share.

The biggest challenger to the hard drive is the solid state drive. These drives can be costly, but are much faster than hard drives in terms of access time and read and write speeds.

SSD vs HDD: What’s the Difference?

While not completely new to the market, solid state drives, or SSDs, are making a bigger and bigger impact on the data storage landscape. Rather than using spinning disks with moving read-write heads like a hard disk drive does, solid state drives have no moving parts.

Instead, SSDs use semiconductor cells, usually in the form of what’s called NAND flash memory. These cells use electrical charges to store information or — in the case of some newer designs — the cells have their resistance changed rather than their charge.

Because of this design, the solid state drive can effectively read and write from any location with almost no latency compared to a hard disk, which needs to rotate the platter to locate the data and bring the read-write heads into position.

hdd ssd
The solid state drive, shown on the right, has no moving parts, making it less prone to failure and faster at accessing files compared to a hard drive. 

Solid state drives are also capable of much faster read and write speeds because they aren’t limited by the speed the platter can spin like hard drives are. The lack of moving parts also makes solid state drives more durable compared to similar hard drives. 

For now, solid state drives are generally smaller in storage capacity and more expensive per unit of storage compared to hard drives. They’re also slightly “volatile,” meaning that if left without power for a long period of time, the data stored on them can be lost. They need consistent power to reliably store information, which hard drives do not.

For these reasons, many computers have two drives, one solid state and one hard drive. This allows you to get a reasonable amount of storage from a disk drive for a reasonable price with rapid access to the files you put on the solid state drive. 

The price of SSDs will continue to decline just as they did for hard drives. Ultimately, solid state drives will be the cheaper option, leading to more widespread adoption of SSDs in coming years.

Cloud Storage: A Viable Hard Drive Alternative?

Much like with solid state drives, cloud storage presents unique pros and cons of its own. Cloud storage is a way of storing data on drives that are not physically attached to your computer or device. Instead, information is sent to and retrieved from cloud storage over an internet connection.

This can come in the form of a personal cloud, where you are still the owner and operator of the device where your data is going. More commonly, you can also purchase a cloud service subscription that will allow you to use storage on someone else’s server, such as with Google Drive or Dropbox.

google drive
Google drive is a great freemium cloud storage service that most people are already familiar with and many people already use. 

Benefits of Cloud Storage

One benefit of cloud storage is its flexible capacity, with many cloud storage providers offering huge amounts of storage for the right price. Additionally, there’s the fact that you can access most cloud files from anywhere on almost any device. Cloud storage also offers a great way to create off-site backups of your files in case something happens to your computer. 

Downsides of Cloud Storage

The main downsides of cloud storage are the fact that in many cases you have to pay a recurring monthly fee. Additionally, the files are not entirely in your control if you’re using a cloud service subscription.

Some people don’t like the idea of a company or someone else storing their files for them. In some cases, these files can be scanned for content, mostly for benevolent reasons like helping you sort and search your things, but it can be an unsettling thought regardless. Also, some people have legitimate security concerns when their files are being stored on faraway servers that are out of their control.

cloud server
Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of cloud storage because their files are being stored on a server somewhere that is out of their control. 

Another disadvantage of cloud storage is that file access times will almost always be slower than if the files were stored locally on the device. Plus, without an internet connection, you won’t be able to access your files at all.

For these reasons, cloud storage as a sole form of data storage is not yet considered an ideal solution, but rather a way to increase your storage or backup files to be accessed from anywhere. 

Final Thoughts

Thanks to remarkable advances in hard drive technology, we can now store more information than many of us even know what to do with. However, with some exciting new advancements on the way, we may soon see hard disk drives become a thing of the past as faster solid state drives and cloud storage grow increasingly more affordable.

Do you use mostly hard drives, SSDs or cloud storage? Have you ever had a hard drive die on you (if so, you might want to check out our free data recovery software article)? Let us know in the comments below and as always, thanks for reading. 

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