A Hunger for More Data

August is Summer Reading Month in Daily Nutmeg, and Ainissa Ramirez is this week’s featured author. Please enjoy this excerpt from Ramirez’s book The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another (The MIT Press, 2020).

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[An] Everest of punchcards brought Rey Johnson out to California. There was a problem to solve, but also an opportunity to do things a new way. IBM needed data to be stored compactly, which was not the case with stacks of punchcards, and for access to that data to be done in real time, automatically and instantly, which was also not the case with punchcard readers.

Inside IBM’s new West Coast Research laboratory at 99 Notre Dame Avenue, Johnson was still deciding which direction to take for making a means to store data, but he was gaining clarity on the needs involved for that storage. Complaints from IBM customers said they wanted a way to arbitrarily access a transaction without going through all the punchcards. On January 16, 1953, Johnson called a small task-force meeting of the engineers to fix that punchcard problem. But the meeting was more profound than that. These men, with their white shirts, pocket protectors, and eyeglasses, were going to follow Edison’s path and change the shape of data.

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In the meeting, many voiced strong opinions of how information could be stored. One person proposed using a large magnetic cylinder, borrowing from Thomas Edison’s idea for the phonograph, where Edison’s rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” arose from a needle running over a cylinder wrapped in tinfoil. In the magnetic version, a coating of magnetic iron replaced the tinfoil and a small magnet hovering above stood in for the needle. Another person proposed that a magnetic tape be used. Others suggested using magnets in the shape of sheets, rods, and even wires. For hours, occupants sat at a long Steelcase table deliberating on the shape of data, until one voice proposed a disk, like a record from a record player. That changed everything.

This idea was profound, for while a disk is geometrically simple, it provided an engineering advantage. Disks offered more area for music with an A-side and a B-side, allowing more data to be stored in a smaller amount of space. The same would hold for a hard disk.

Johnson’s west coast team decided the first disks needed to be two feet wide, like large pizzas, with a gaggle of them spinning 1,200 times a minute, nearly twice as fast as a football spiral. They also agreed that the mechanism should resemble a jukebox, with disks stacked vertically, like books on a shelf. Now they needed to make it; to do so they headed to the junkyard.

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Edison had always said that an inventor needed ideas and a big pile of junk, and these IBM engineers now had theirs. In the scrap heap, they found two metal girders, to support the spinning disks, that were heavy enough to prevent the hard disk from shuffling across the room, like a poorly loaded washing machine. To spin the disk, they found a motor. They also found an aluminum sheet. When the sheet was cut, it warped like a potato chip, so they flattened it with a tombstone from the graveyard.

The hard disk’s mechanism was further inspired by the jukebox and the record player. In a record player, a stylus followed the pattern of the record’s grooves, which served as the data that was turned into sound. On a hard disk, a layer of magnetic dust served as the medium to hold the data, for sound or any other information. The magnetic head flying above the hard disk substituted for the stylus, sensing the magnetic regions, which could be interpreted as ones and zeros—the basic units of the language of computers. It was Jake Hagopian’s job to find a way to coat the disk with magnetic particles.

Coating the disk wasn’t easy, since its thickness needed to be the same across a large area. Hagopian tried dipping the pizza-sized disk into a vat of paint, but the resulting surface was rough. He tried silk-screening the coating, but the surface was bumpy. He tried spray painting, but the surface was uneven. One day, while visiting a printing plant, he saw automated cylinders coated with ink spinning quickly to remove the excess. This put a seed in Hagopian’s mind.

On November 10, 1953, Hagopian returned to the lab, picked up a twelve-inch disk, some paint, and a Dixie cup, and walked over to the machine shop. There he connected the disk to the drill to spin it and poured some of the paint in a ring in the center from the Dixie cup. When he started the drill, paint flew out in all directions, like spin art, hitting the newspaper Hagopian set around it. When the paint dried, he saw that it was the best coating he had ever produced—thin, uniform, and nearly flawless. To remove the lumps in the paint, Hagopian strained the paint through his wife’s old silk stockings. Soon, spin coating became the official way to coat many of the early disks. …

With the work of all the engineers over the years, all the pieces came together to make IBM’s first commercial hard disk, the RAMAC—a random access method of accounting and control. The RAMAC was the size of two refrigerators, weighed over a ton, and held five million bits of data, or five megabits (about equal to one photo today).

The RAMAC was huge and didn’t hold much data, but soon the data storage industry, which IBM helped to build, would follow the guiding principle of more data in less space. While silicon chips followed Moore’s Law, the data industry doubled it. For every bit of real estate on a hard disk, there was a desire for smaller bits of data to live there. Less space would hold more information, and soon society developed a hunger for more data. This hunger would be fed with greater storage capacity for files, apps, games, pictures, and music, and consumers got accustomed to being able to share more. But the miniaturization of data would have other repercussions.

Music storage evolved from foil-wrapped cylinders to disc records to magnetic tape. But soon, music would shed its physical cocoon entirely, and like a butterfly, flutter across cyberspace as a digital file residing on a computer’s hard disk, or in a MP3 player, or in data centers called the cloud. When music lost its shell and became a digital file, listeners benefited from its being available at all times. The meaning for data changed, however. Data went from printed words to pricks in tinfoil to bumps on records to holes to magnetic bits to its disembodied form, and the evolution did not stop there. The ubiquity and small size of data on massive hard disks enabled the collection of colossal amounts of information about people. Music used to be the data that we collected, but now we are.

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The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another
by Ainissa Ramirez

The MIT Press, 2020
Where to buy: RJ Julia | Bookshop | Barnes & Noble

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