In 1953, Arthur J. Critchlow, a young member of IBM’s advanced technologies research lab in San Jose, California, was assigned the task of finding a better information storage medium than punch-cards. Visiting a number of customers, Critchlow learned that punch-card equipment performed well when the processing of information could be done in batches or sequentially stored information but became problematic when random access was needed.
Inventory control was such an activity. In warehouse operations, for example, each order typically required several cards to be manually located, removed from a stack of cards, the inventory information updated, and the updated cards returned to their original locations. To facilitate this activity, drawers of cards were set out on work tables so that several people could access cards from the same file. This manner of organizing and processing information, widely known as the “tub file,” was time consuming and error-prone.
The IBM project’s staff evaluated every existing storage technology in an attempt to find the best technological solution to the loss of productivity and poor quality associated with “tub files.” In addition to superior capacity and reliability, the storage technology eventually selected, magnetic disks, could provide random access to information. A new method (encoded in software) for finding stored information when its physical location on the disk was unknown, ensured the success of the new way to store, organize, and share business records.
Announced on September 4, 1956, the IBM 350 Disk Storage Unit came with fifty 24-inch disks and a total capacity of 5 megabytes; its first customer was United Airlines’ reservations system. Incorporated (and announced ten days later) into the 305 RAMAC (Random Access Memory Accounting Machine), it promised, as the IBM press release said, “that business transactions will be completely processed right after they occur. There will be no delays while data is grouped for batch processing. People running a business will be able to get the fresh facts they need, at once. Random access memory equipment will not only revolutionize punched card accounting but also magnetic tape accounting.” Later, it was exhibited in the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, where visitors could query “Professor RAMAC” using a keyboard and get answers in any of ten languages. This public relations coup heralded a day when millions of people would access and retrieve information from the largest tub file ever assembled – the World Wide Web.
The RAMAC became obsolete within a few years of its introduction as the vacuum tubes powering it were replaced by transistors. But disk drives, invented more than 55 years ago in a search for faster access to information, are still used as the containers for almost all digital information today.