Memories of memory -- 01/07/05

Jeremy gave me a SanDisk Cruzer micro memory stick for Christmas. It is quite small (see photo below on the right -- that's a normal-sized computer keyboard it is sitting on).

I've been enjoying using my memory stick to transfer files from one computer to another. (It plugs into a USB jack.) It is very handy for moving files around -- the kind of thing for which I would have used a CD until now. A couple of years ago I might have used a zip drive or a 3.5 inch diskette. (For a brief while there were a handful of Internet start-ups that offered free space on their servers, which was very hand in moving files, say, from work to home or back again.) Before the three and a half inch diskette there was the five and a quarter inch floppy diskette.

On the left are some IBM disk drives from the 1970's. They are actually photographs of IBM 3340s, but I'm using them to represent IBM 3330 Model 2 disk drives which looked pretty much just like that. The only pictures of 3330s that I could find in a reasonable amount of searching were of the 3330 Model 11 in which the drives were stacked, one on top of another, but the Model 1 and Model 2 disk drives, like the 3340s, had the look of a high tech washing machine or dryer.

In January of 1976 -- twenty-nine years ago -- yes, time does fly! -- I began taking grad courses in computer science. The university I was attending had a new IBM System 370/158 mainframe computer. Later that year I got a job there as a second shift computer operator (and eventually became senior operator and shift supervisor). We had eight 3330 disk drives, arranged in two rows of four. On parents' weekend I would give tours of the computer center and awe people by pointing out that each of these disk drives had a capacity of 100 Megabytes and we had eight of them, for a total of eight hundred million bytes of data. Wow! (I can even remember how happy we all were when the mainframe was upgraded to have two and a half Megabytes of RAM.

I use a laptop with a Gigabyte of RAM and a forty Gigabyte hard drive. (It is scheduled to be replaced soon.)

The university did do some creative financing to get the computer (given the complex bureaucratic nightmare that state purchasing was). The non-profit corporation that ran the campus food service and book store, etc. purchased the mainframe from IBM (taking out a mortgage to do so) and then rented it to the university.

Anyway, the thing that struck me about this little memory stick is that it can hold 128 Megabytes. It probably cost under $25. The price of a 100 Megabyte 3330 varied over time, many of them were leased, but the purchase price was probably around forty or fifty thousand dollars (plus you would need a disk drive controller, etc.). So I have this tiny little thing that can store more information than one of those very expensive washing machine sized units.

Yes, I am picking on a particular moment in time -- 1976 through 1978 -- because that is when I started in the computer field and that 370/158 with its 3330 disk drives seemed like quite a machine at the time -- it was the most powerful air-cooled mainframe IBM made in those days (the more powerful ones generated so much heat that they had to be water-cooled).

And yes, I understand that memory sticks are available in much larger sizes, a Gigabyte and more... And yesterday I saw a photograph from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that showed a tiny disk drive. The drive plus its mounting card were smaller than a domino. It could hold eight Gigabytes.

And soon that will be quaint. In fifteen years or so my grandson will be incredulous when he hears that we actually had computers that only had forty or sixty Gigabytes of disk drive and only a gig or so of memory.

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