Is this really a hard drive from 1979?

This picture has been making the rounds of the web lately with claims that it is a 250MB hard drive from 1979. I’m a bit skeptical, though; by that time, computer makers were selling drives that were significantly (physically) smaller than that (admittedly IBM’s original RAMAC [1956] used 24" platters, but that was 23 years earlier), and it seems to me that to increase capacity they’d be more likely to use more platters, rather than create a monster-sized disk that would take forever to get up to speed and would cause huge problems if it ever crashed.

So what’s the real story?

In 1983, I was using 96MB hard drives that were the size of a washing machine. They weren’t the latest technology, but they were still being sold.

I don’t know about the date but large drives like that definitely did exist and were used commercially. It just might be that the date is off.

In 1979 that drive certainly was not the smallest available.

My boss in a software testing job I had in the early 90s had on his wall a hard drive platter that was about 18 inches in diameter. There was a big circular gouge in it. The story was that one day someone popped into his office to say the audible alarm on the hard drive was going off. The problem was that drive did not have an audible alarm. The noise was the head grinding into the platter. (This platter was from earlier in his career not the 90s)

I do not think that getting upto speed was a big issue for these drives. I think that they were constantly spinning at one speed. Modern hard drives stop spinning as a power saving feature that old drive like the one in the picture did not have.

I recall the local computer community genius who bought one of the first hard drives for something - might have been an Amiga. Your basic $2,000 toy in 1980 or so. He took it back to the store a few weeks later because it wasn’t working. It wasn’t working because it had developed a faint squeal, and genius had opened it up to give it a shot of WD-40…

There was no Amiga in 1980 (first model was released in 1985). The Commodore 64 hadn’t even come out at that point. I could see it maybe being an Apple II (don’t know if there were any [third-party] hard drives available for the Apple II in 1980), or more likely, an S100-based system.

We all had one of those in our offices back then. Every time a big drive crashed we’d circle like vultures to acquire the platter in the worst shape.

We had a Burroughs B3500 mainframe computer in the early 70s which had huge fixed head hard drives. The platters were easily the size of the ones shown. They were definitely not removable. IIRC, they didn’t have a huge capacity either given the size.


Sorry, I tried to add more information but missed the edit window somehow.

Anyway, this PDF file describes and includes pictures of the computer I was talking about. Scroll down and bit and read the part about Random Access memory (disc drives) for some giggles (It seemed like so much back then).


Our college had a GE mainframe in 1970 that had disks that size, and they probably remained in use for several years afterwards. Mainframes and their components were not replaced often, so as long as the drive worked, it would still be used.

Using tineye I found this article which also suggests that it may be a Burroughs drive. The author said it crashed in 1975.

You all might enjoy this series of pictures on the James Lileks website.

Ah, it is a fixed head disk drive. Makes sense - that explains the curious design of the head assembly. These would have been insanely expensive, and at the time as fast as it got. They occupied a place in the scheme of things much like a SSD does now.

I’ve seen people threading magnetic beads into a web - was that a form of storage before HDDs?

It may have been core memory.

Fixed-head disk drives were available in the 19" rackmount form factor well before 1979. Western Electric even made some in-house for their PDP systems. By 1979 I’d already purchased my first one, a 4MB unit from Data General. I’m thinking it was a model 6022, but that memory isn’t reliable.

At that point in time, a bunny suit would have been unusual for hard drive maintenance as the drives at the time were generally not sealed - in fact, disk packs / cartridges were exposed to open air when installing and removing them.

Even the first production Winchester, the IBM 3340 (I “bought” [leased] a bunch of those in the 70’s, too) was not sealed. The novel idea was that the heads stayed in the disk module - when you swapped disks, you put in a new disk module with its own heads. Part of the load sequence involved sliding the disk module toward the rear of the drive, which unlocked a plastic roll-up “security gate” door which exposed the connector for the disk heads as well as the actuator linkage. Positioning the heads was done by the floor-standing cabinet, destroying one of the advantages of heads-in-module - automatic alignment.

While the prototype was developed as 2 bays, 30MB each (hence 30-30 Winchester), production units were normally 75 MB. There was a half-capacity module at 35MB for poorer customers, as well as a weird module with extra fixed heads and a shorter stroke on the other heads, giving rise to a weird normal + fixed-head hybrid module.

BTW, the 3340 module looked a bit like the NCC-1701 Enterprise minus the warp nacelles.

Or rope memory, or twistor memory.

Since I started reminiscing in a prior reply, I’ll continue a little. The first memory I ever ordered was an 8KB core board, which cost $22,000 (in 1970’s dollars!). I still have it somewhere in my basement (I saved it when that system was finally decommissioned).

Yeah, the size and the vertical mount suggests quite a bit earlier.

I very vaguely remember these, there was a tiny 370 system in a special education facility provided for schools when I was at high school, and I’m pretty sure it used them. The disks I first started to worry about were a generation later - although I did disassemble a CDC drum drive, and deeply regret that it went missing from the store sometime later.

Which makes the bunny suit all the more puzzling. I’d suspect military / aerospace / NASA-type stuff, except that you don’t want to be hauling large gyroscopes around in your vehicle, unless you’re using them for navigation.

I assume you meant “tiny” as in performance, not size. The minimum configuration for the entry-level 370-115 was a (roughly) 3’ x 8’ x 6’ CPU, a 2’ x 3’ x 2’ motor generator set, and a 2’ x 3’ x 4’ 2501 card reader. This minimum configuration required a 60A 3-phase circuit as well as some smaller circuits for the peripherals. Of course, if you wanted to do anything useful, you needed either disk and/or tape drives, probably a printer, and maybe a card punch. Fortunately, all of those were available with integrated controllers on the -115. By the time you got up to bigger hardware, you needed external free-standing controllers for all of these (and the 2821 reader/punch/printer controller was bigger than the 2501 + 1442 + 1403N1 devices themselves).

I’ve had 360-75, 370-115 (what a step backwards!), 370-125 (a computer “born under a bad sign” for a number of reasons*), 370-138 (the best of the bunch), 4331, 4381, 9370.

I actually restored a crashed drum disk on an LGP-30 computer at one point. We had an empty warehouse building and I had a policy of never turning down any donated computer equipment (which served us well, since people who gave us junk once would remember us and give us good stuff). I had quite a collection of obsolete computers which I’d restored to operable or semi-operable condition. Among them were:

o Naval Ordnance Ballistic Calculator - a huge analog computer occupying a dozen or so relay racks, in black crinkle finish. Note that this was not the NORC, which was a digital supercomputer which was much “newer” (1956) than the NOBC.
o CDC 160A (with optional math unit)
o LGP-30
o IBM 360-75 (non-operable due to insufficient power)
o Early (pre-PDP) DEC computers built out of logic modules

Unfortunately, when I left that job nobody took over the care of those systems. Eventually the warehouse roof collapsed and the building was declared a Superfund site (it had been donated to the college by a chemical company as a way of “getting rid” of it). All the computers were scrapped. I’m particularly sad about the NOBC, since that was apparently one-of-a-kind - I’ve certainly never heard of another one and there are no references to it (that I can find) on the Internet.

  • The 370-125 was just a bad-luck system from the get-go. It had a golfball printer (“Selectric” type, but not a Selectric) as a console, and the paper would jam constantly. You had a 50/50 chance of crashing the system if you opened the cover to fix the paper. We’d gotten an edict that we had to go with the lowest bidder for the 256KB expansion memory, and we wound up with MAI. They brought a 3’ x 4’ x 6’ box for the memory, and proceeded to cut a 4" square hole in the side of the -125 and run many hundreds of wire-wrap wires between the backplane of the 370 and their expansion box. If the memory was powered on when you IMPL’d the -125, you would get both a “CPU Early” and a “CPU Late” check and the same time and you had to power off the CPU and try again. We wound up having to IMPL the -125, power on the add-on memory, and then patch the microcode before IPL-ing (booting) the operating system. Of course, this non-IBM memory offended IBM greatly, and they never wanted to fix anything on that system, no matter what it was.

The 370-138, on the other hand, was a great system - despite movers losing their grip on it and it rolling down the street and crashing into a mausoleum at the end of the block. But that’s a story for another time…