05/12/2021

017 – Disk jockeys – 1956

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Computers have lots of memory but no imagination.  Anon.

IBM first developed disk technologies in order to load the software required to boot up mainframes.  Reading data could be achieved by running around the disk like a record player or jumping radially across the face of the disk to reach a particular point more rapidly.

At IBM Alan Shugart worked on the IBM 305 RAMAC, random access method of accounting and control, launched in September 1956. 

This was the first commercial computer with a moving-head hard disk enabling real-time applications.  The drive had fifty, double-sided, 24” surfaces able to store up to five million 7-bit characters.

Shugart rose through IBM’S Direct Access Storage department to become its product manager; in 1971 he ran the team that launched the 23FD, a single-sided 8” floppy disk.  It was read-only and suitable only for loading programs or data. 

By 1973 IBM had developed the double-sided 33D drive with a capacity of 400k bytes which could be used to read and write.  IBM developed the floppy disk but never sold the drive as a distinct product; the market was left to others to exploit.

In 1973 Shugart left IBM, worked briefly at Memorex, then formed his own Shugart Associates where he launched the SA901, an 8” disk drive fully compatible with the IBM 33D.

In the same year IBM launched its first Winchester hard drive. 

Its designer Kenneth Haughton planned it to have two 30-megabyte spindles reminding him of the famous Winchester hunting rifle known as the 30-30.  In fact when it was launched the drive offered either 35 or 70 megabyte options, but the name Winchester stuck.

1973 The first Winchester air-suspended the read/write head some 18-millionths of an inch above the recording surface.  There were four 8” disks giving it a massive 70 megabyte capacity and this soon became the industry standard.

1976 Shugart developed the 5¼” mini-floppy drive for the PC, a market needing something more compact.  It had a price of just $390, a capacity of 110k and was a huge success.  But Shugart fell out with the venture capitalists and the operation was sold on to Xerox.

1980 Dr Fujio Masuoka at Toshiba invented a low-power, low-cost technology for storage.  His colleague Shoji Ariizumi described erasing the memory as like the flash of a camera, so it became known as ‘flash memory’.  It proved useful as a memory card, was used in USB pens and for solid-state drives in mobile phones, MP3 players and other products.

With Finis Conner, Syed Iftikar, Doug Mahon and Tom Mitchell he launched Shugart Technology.  This was later renamed Seagate Technology with Shugart as CEO. 

In September 1981 the Seagate IPO raised $25m.  To minimise costs they outsourced production to Matsushita and this gave the Japanese company a kick-start to becoming the largest disk drive maker in the world.

Outside his work Shugart was an interesting character.

He took a shot at politics when in 1996 he tried, but sadly failed, to get Ernest his Burmese Mountain Dog elected to US Congress. 

In 2000 he co-proposed that California ballot papers should have a ‘none of the above’ option as one of its choices.  Priceless!

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