jimsjournal
Bits, bytes, gigabytes -- 12/04/07

Four for four so far...
All of you reading this obviously have some degree of computer literacy (else you wouldn't be here) and are familiar with such terms as bits and bytes and kilobytes and megabytes and gigabytes, etc. I've been around computers long enough that I remember when kilobyte was a useful unit of measurement.

I had a summer ('65) job working second shift at the IBM plant in Kingston, New York. It was a lucrative job compared the usual supermarket or warehouse minimum wage job I would ordinarily have had. And most weeks we also worked extra hours. An above minimum wage hourly rate + shift bonus + 20 extra hours at time-and-a-half. Oh yeah, that was good. The work itself was not quite as much fun. I was doing 'scope-soldering of connecters onto the ends of cables. Spend twelve hours a day staring into a binocular microscope while soldering fifty or sixty connections per inch across the end of a two-inch wide flat Teflon cable. These cables were used to make connections inside mainframe computers. (Think of the inside of a desktop PC and the cable that connects your disk drive with the mother board... now imagine the multiple taller-than-a-man boxes that made up a 1965 vintage mainframe computer that might not fit into your living room.)

Those million dollar mainframe computers that year probably had 24 to 64 kilobytes of main memory.

Jump forward eleven years. I am a 2nd shift computer operator at SUNY/Binghamton (these days they prefer the name Binghamton University) and also a graduate student in computing. We had an IBM 370/158. It had two megabytes of main memory (actually, at some point early in 1977 they upgraded to two and a half megabytes). We used IBM 3330 disk drives. They were about the size of a washer or dryer. The hard drive itself was a stack of disks (19 of them, each one about 14 inches in diameter) with a read/write head for each disk. The model we had could store 100 megabytes per stack of disks. (The latest model at that time could hold twice as much data, but we were a public university so we had not upgraded to the very latest.Here's a picture of the 200MB model; the 100MB ones looked exactly the same.) We had eight of these drives and, when conducting tours of the computer center (very popular on parent weekends, etc.), we would wow the visitors by pointing out that meant we had eight hundred million bytes available. (Laying emphasis on each word: eight... hundred... million!)

Then came PCs. I remember when a friend bought a Radio Shack TRS/80 computer with four kilobytes of memory. A few years later we bought our first home computer, an IBM clone with one five and a quarter inch floppy drive and 640 kilobytes of memory. Remember when PCs got hard drives? The first ones had ten and twenty megabyte capacity, but that quickly began to climb and it seemed as if scarcely any time at all had passed by before drive capacity was being measured in gigabytes.

I often think back to that cluster of 3330 drives. The university was paying thousands of dollars per month to lease those eight drives. I thought of that a few weeks ago when I picked up a two gigabyte USB drive about the size of a disposable lighter for around twenty bucks on sale. Two and a half times the capacity of those eight washing machine sized disk drives in something I could buy for twenty bucks and casually stick in my pocket.

Yesterday Jeremy and I stopped by Staples to get Microsoft Word upgrade for students -- the one year "free" license for Word that came with his computer was expiring. He could renew online but Staples had it on sale for twenty bucks less. Okay, saving $20 is worth a bricks & mortar trip.

And me getting a new phone on Sunday was actually prompted by Jeremy needing a new one. His new phone will take a MicroSD memory card to store pictures (and MP3 files, etc.). Staples also had them on sale. Thirty bucks for one GB. 15mm 11mm 0.7mm. That's about the size of my smallest fingernail. We were looking at the one and two gigabyte models, but I understand that they are now being made with up to 8 GB capacity. My mind boggles.

Staples also had some external disk drives on sale (i.e., the kind where you don't even have to open your computer's case, just plug it into a USB port) -- one terabyte capacity -- for under $350.

One thousand gigabytes. One million megabytes. One billion kilobytes.

Boggle....

So eventually I should be able to get a multi-terabyte memory chip (maybe even a petabyte chip?) implanted somewhere near my frontal lobe so I can keep track of my memories... as I sit drooling on the front porch in my rocking chair... (and maybe a bunch of MP3 files too?)



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