In 1890, Herman Hollerith took the US census process from hand calculating to a punch card reading machine that used the location of holes on each card to tally interviewees? responses. His company later merged with what became IBM. Jump ahead to 1956 at IBM in California and the emergence of disk drive storage.

Hollerith Tabulation MachineThe naming of IBM?s system RAMAC 305 (Random Access Method of Accounting and Control) indicated its major purpose. Rey Johnson, future inventor of the video cassette, was project leader. Size and quantity far exceeded that of today. A capacity of only 5MG was delivered via 50 platters 24" in diameter that spun at 1200 revolutions per minute (rpm).

Al Shugart, who went on to found Seagate Technologies in 1979, worked on the RAMAC project. He indicated they went through 12 prototypes. Bill Healy of Hitachi who bought IBM’s storage division a decade ago for $2 billion told PC World:

"They needed a disk with magnetic properties, so it would be magnetically susceptible to recording 1s and 0s; and they needed a read element, such as a disk head, to detect, read, and write that data."

Random access was the key element. Since they determined that the device had to move its read/write heads around to different data tracks, Shugart said "The easiest way to do that was a stack of disks." This design soon permeated the large, cumbersome main frames of the day.

IBM developed more flexible equipment. In 1963, they produced the 1311, the first removable hard drive. It had less and smaller platters ? 6 at 14 inches each holding 2.6MB. More than a decade later, the first RAID (Redundant Arrays of Independent Disks) technology patent was filed. A year later, in 1979, IBM was still using 14 inch platters, but now storing 571MB on thin film head drives. Their 62 PC "Piccolo" dropped the size to 8 inches but also lowered storage capacity to 64MB.

Shugart / Seagate Technologies kept pushing the limits

Shugart / Seagate Technologies kept pushing the limits

Disk size continues to shrink when Seagate brings the first 5.25 inch hard disk to market. A curious story makes the rounds about engineers in a bar who were making a wish list. They pointed to the cocktail napkin as a great size for a disk and there you have it. In 2009, Jim Porter, industry consultant, produced an exhibit following the progression of disk drives at the 2009 DISKCON – International Disk Drive and Materials Association?s conference from which several images for this article were drawn.

Continuing our historical timeline, in 1983 Rodime released R0352, the first 3.5-inch hard drive. The number of platters continues to drop, but must be weighed against the storage capacity. In this case 2 platters and 10 MB of storage.

Connor, a Seagate rival, improved on the 3.5 inch hard drive, making it 1-inch high compared to others that were either full height or half height models. In the 90?s disks were speeding up. Seagate?s 2.1GB Barracuda at 7200 rpm and Hewlett Packard?s 2.1GB C3013 Kitty Hawk with two 1.3-inch platters took center stage. Today, a Seagate Barracuda with enough storage to make your head spin ? 1TB ? yes that?s one terabyte ? sells for $89.99 on NewEgg.

Hitachi disk drives whiz along at 12,000 revolutions per minute

Hitachi disk drives whiz along at 12,000 revolutions per minute

Mid decade, Iomega Jaz 1 was the first disk cartridge over1 GB. In 1996, Seagate had those drives whirring at 10,000 rpm, challenged two years later by Hitachi?s 9.2G, 12,000 rpm disks.

Forms and capacities continued to fluctuate in the mid 90?s

Forms and capacities continued to fluctuate in the mid 90?s 

The 21st century hasn?t seen a drop in innovations. In 2004, Toshiba announced their 0.85-inch hard disk drive (intro image). Intended for portable devices, the drive was designed to be smaller, lighter and to use less power than others available at the time. These features are still driving the market.

Disk drives and their innovations continue to be big business as we begin the second decade of the new century. HDD revenue was approximately $9.6 billion in the first quarter of 2012 according to IHS iSuppli. Their analysts are predicting that hybrid HDDs which are basically hard disk drives containing a built-in layer of NAND flash memory, will offer a new way to store data, and that their thinner profile is ideal for even slimmer and lighter, next-generation Ultrabooks.

Stayed tuned for the next 10 years. It can only get more exciting.