Data Storage Devices – By The Ton

The last week of April 2010 marked the death knell of the 3.5-inch floppy disk, one of the mainstays of portable data storage since the early days of the personal computer in the early 1980s.  Advances in ever-smaller, more portable, and vastly capacious data storage devices, such as recordable CDs and DVDs, and solid state devices such as USB flash drives and flash memory cards, hastened the end of the floppy disk that can store just a tiny percentage of data compared to the devices in use today.  How far, then, has technology come regarding data storage devices?  Let’s example a relic from the 1950s.

“Introduced in 1956, the IBM 305 RAMAC (Random Access Memory Accounting System) was an electronic general purpose data processing machine that maintained business records on a real-time basis.”

The end of the 3.5-inch floppy disk has arrived. How much did the first data storage devices weigh? How much do current storage devices, such as the USB flash drive, weigh?

The 350 Disk Storage Unit, used by the IBM 305 RAMAC

The IBM introduced the 350 Disk Storage Unit, or what we would now regard as a “hard drive”.  The specifications, heady at the time, included the following:

  • 5 million 7-bit characters (not even 8-bit characters, or “bytes”)
  • 50 aluminum disks, coated with magnetic iron oxide
  • Random-access storage (vs. sequential storage)
  • Vacuum-tube control electronics (transistors come soon after)

The entire unit took up the space of two refrigerators and weighed one ton(!).  Available only for lease, clients spent $3,200 per month for the full setup.  The cost, as you can imagine, does not include the monthly electrical bill augmented by its use as well as the use of air conditioning to prevent it from overheating during operation.

The end of the 3.5-inch floppy disk has arrived. How much did the first data storage devices weigh? How much do current storage devices, such as the USB flash drive, weigh?

The once-common 3.5-inch floppy disk

When you hear five million characters, does that sound like very much to you?  It shouldn’t; that is equal to 4.4 megabytes (MB), or about four 3.5-inch floppy disks at 1.44 MB apiece.  So over 20 years after IBM introduced the enormous hard drive, the physical storage of 4.4 MB went from two refrigerators to the mere thickness of about two or three Post-it® pads and weighing well under one pound.

Go forward another 30 years to the present time and ubiquitous, very lightweight, ultra-high capacity storage devices has marked the end of the 3.5-inch floppy disks.  However, if you wanted to have a floppy disk backup of your one gigabyte USB flash drive, how many disks would that take?  Brace yourself: you would need about 700 floppy disks(!), weighing just over 30 pounds, a huge burden on your neck considering that a USB flash drive weighs 2.1 ounces.  How much smaller will data storage devices become in the future?  The 3.5-inch floppy disk, once the new benchmark in light storage devices, seems quite “heavy” in the face of much lighter solid state data storage devices available today.  Its end was only a matter of time.

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Francis M. Unson

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