Friday, June 29, 2007

Accelerated History

One of the accidental consequences of our incredibly rapid advances in science and technology is that certain things that happened within my own lifetime seem like ancient history. The ad at right (via GeekPress) is a great example of this -- it seems quite funny today that $12,000 for a mere 80MB would seem like a low price to anybody!

But... I purchased my first disk drive in about 1977. It was a used Memorex 630, with 5 MB of nonremovable storage and 5 MB of removable storage. I paid $10,000 for it -- used! Then I spent months figuring out how to attach it to my Z-80 microcomputer -- and when I got done, I thought I had the absolute hottest personal computer in the universe (and maybe, for about three seconds, I did!). Just a few short years later, I was manufacturing personal computers with 80MB "Winchester" disk drives that cost about $2,000 brand new. Today, a disk drive with 10,000 times that much storage sells for around $200!

Another personal story... In the mid-'70s, microcomputer hobbyists (and I was one, even back then) had very few sources for parts -- and even fewer for complete systems. A good friend
(Mike Blier) and I built several microcomputers from scratch, designing the circuits ourselves and wire-wrapping the actual circuitry. One of the basic subsystems was random access memory (RAM), and our earliest efforts had very small amounts of it -- just a few hundred bytes (compared with billions of bytes in even a cheap PC today). During this period, we were in the U.S. Navy, and our ship was being overhauled in Bremerton, Washington. From one of the hobbyist magazines (TCH) we learned that a retail computer store had opened in Seattle, just across the bay from where we were. Back then, this was an astonishing development -- until that point, our only sources were mail order houses (remember, there was no Internet!), and easily three quarters of those were complete flakes. So Mike and I took every bit of cash we had (not much, as enlisted guys), and rode the ferry over to Seattle. A couple of hours later, we were walking down the street, whooping and hollering over our amazing purchases. Mike bought a used 5.25 inch floppy disk drive with a whopping 60kb capacity for $250 -- and was so excited about that he could hardly stand it. My purchase was a RAM board with more capacity than I believed existed: 2 entire kilobytes! And it was static RAM (the only reliable kind back then, nearly totally obsolete today), to boot! And best of all (wait for it) ... it was only $2,000! Wow! Just one measly dollar for each byte! Today RAM prices are less than 0.00001 cents per byte...

And yes, I remember vinyl records. Actually, I remember the old 78 RPM records made from a brittle material based on shellac. I even owned a wind-up, all-mechanical Victrola at one point, purchased from a yard sale for next to nothing (and now it would be a valuable antique, had I kept it).

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