The RAMAC, designed in Big Blue’s San Jose, Calif., research center, is the ultimate ancestor of that 1.8-inch drive that holds 7,500 songs inside your pocket-size $299 iPod. Of course, the RAMAC would have made a lousy music player. The drive weighed a full ton, and to lease it you’d pay about $250,000 a year in today’s dollars. Since it required a separate air compressor to protect the two moving “heads” that read and wrote information, it was noisy. The total amount of information stored on its 50 spinning iron-oxide-coated disks—each of them a pizza-size 24 inches—was 5 megabytes. That’s not quite enough to hold two MP3 copies of Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog.”
Yet those who beheld the RAMAC were astonished. “It was about the size of two large refrigerators, about as tall as a person stands, and though it used vacuum tubes, it was always running,” recalls Jim Porter, who worked at Crown Zellerbach in San Francisco in the mid-’50s and would proudly take people to the basement to see what he claims was the very first unit delivered by IBM. “It really turned the tide [in the Information Age],” he says. “It was the first to offer random access, whereas before you would have to wind a tape from one end to the other to access data.”
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