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The World's First Computer With Data Storage

1950s | May 14, 2018

Technology has made major advancements since the mid 1900’s. Many consider the 1970’s to be the first time in history a computer was created and made available for purchase. This is the first time personal computers were available to the general public, but it’s definitely not the first time a computer was built and created in order to serve the general public.

In September 1956, IBM launched the first computer with magnetic disc storage, or what is more well-known as a hard disc drive (HDD). The 305 RAMAC (Random Access Method of Accounting and Control) weighed over 2000 pounds, cost $35,000 a year to operate, and only stored 5 MB (mega-bytes) of data. It could be leased to businesses for $3,200 per month in 1957. Over one thousand of these systems were manufactured between 1957 - 1961. 

When IBM announced the availability of this massive machine, they released a film which chronicled the 5 year journey from research and development to the creation of th 305 RAMAC. The film was used to pitch this brand new machine to the modern-day business, offering to make the burdening task of data storage, data retrieval and mathematical functions a thing of the past. IBM emphasized such features as “recording transactions as they occur” and “processing amazing speed and unrelated data, randomly retrieved and randomly transacted”. The vast amount of storage the 305 ARAMAC was able to create was compared to the ability of the current punch card system. This contemporary computer of the times could collect and store as much as “32 cartons containing 64,000 IBM punch cards”.

Chrysler was the first company to purchase and use the 305 RAMAC. It was installed at their Motor and Parts division (MOPAR) and replaced a punch card storage structure that maintained their inventory control and order processing system. IBM also provided a 305 RAMAC for the 1960 Olympic Winter Games, held in Squaw Valley, USA. 

IBM Punch Card System

Why was this so fascinating to the world? The 305 RAMAC was the first machine that allowed data to be stored and retrieved almost immediately. This is why it was marketed strictly as a business machine. At that time most businesses kept track of all their data - payroll records, accounting records, inventory, budgets, and general business information - on good old-fashioned paper, filed and organized in a structure best suited to the management of the business. It’s pretty obvious that with this type of system, one could spend hours sorting through organized files, trying to find the one piece of information that was needed.

A hard drive allowed for the immediate retrieval of information. This was a huge technical advancement and would have astronomical effects on the future of data storage. A 1998 article in the Electronic Engineering Times describes the release of the 305 RAMAC by IBM:

It started with a product announcement in May of 1955. IBM Corp. was introducing a product that offered unprecedented random-access storage — 5 million characters (not bytes, they were 7-bit, not 8-bit characters). This first disk drive heralded startling leaps in mass-storage technology and the end of sequential storage on punched cards and paper or Mylar tape, though magnetic tape would continue for archival or backup storage.
The disk drive was big, not quite ready for today’s laptop. With its vacuum-tube control electronics, the RAMAC (for “random-access method of accounting and control”) occupied the space of two refrigerators and weighed a ton. It stored those 5 million characters on 50 hefty aluminum disks coated on both sides with a magnetic iron oxide, a variation of the paint primer used for the Golden Gate Bridge.

The IBM 350 disc storage, or hard drive, inside the 305 RAMAC, contained 50 vertically stacked 24-inch hard discs and used up 16 square feet of space inside the computer. Data was stored and retrieved by use of an access arm while the aluminum discs spun at speeds of 1,200 rpm.

If you were to compare the 1956 305 RAMAC to today’s computers you would see a dramatic difference in volume of data stored and size of the machine. The original iPhone in 2007 included up to 8 GB of storage and weighed under one pound. A device weighing less than a pound could store approximately 8000 MB of data; that is 1600 times more storage than the 305 RAMAC. In a computer the size of two refrigerators, you could have stored one individual iPhone picture.

In fact, an original 1956 RAMAC is on display today at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. It was restored by two engineers, Dave Bennet and Joe Feng. And the answer is yes, it still works.

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Terry Claypoole

Writer

Terry is a lover of the beach, history, politics and has a passion for social media and technology. In her spare time, you can find her at the beach (of course) enjoying the sand and sun and listening to music from the groovy era.