Ob­jects in Space: HDD His­to­ries

There’s one key tech­nol­ogy that has made pos­si­ble the vast open worlds and stun­ning graph­ics of to­day’s games. It’s not the mul­ti­core CPU or the TFLOPS-tas­tic GPU. Rather, it’s the hum­ble hard disk drive, and the cheap, re­li­able, big stor­age it en­ables. W

PCPOWERPLAY - - Contents -

The­first hard­ware up­grade I ever bought for my own PC wasn’t a graph­ics card, or more RAM, or a new CPU. It was a hard disk drive. As­sum­ing my bi­o­log­i­cal data stor­age sys­tem is work­ing prop­erly, I seem to re­call it was a Quan­tum ProDrive LPS, with a ca­pac­ity of 425MB. It cost me $450 - oh and $65 for the dude at the shop to in­stall it and set all the jumpers right.

There’s an ar­gu­ment to be made that it’s the hard disk drive that set the IBM PC apart from its com­pe­ti­tion.

Like ma­chines from Ap­ple, Tandy, Os­borne, and oth­ers, in 1981 the first IBM PC didn’t ship with an HDD. But hard drives were avail­able right out of the gate from third party man­u­fac­tur­ers. (Okay, so maybe it’s re­ally the open hard­ware stan­dard that sets the IBM PC apart... mov­ing on) and they were very much a pop­u­lar op­tion.

These early hard drives were ex­tremely ex­pen­sive, but they en­abled own­ers to get into se­ri­ous soft­ware de­vel­op­ment. The first IBM PC, the 5150, was unique be­cause it could be con­fig­ured cheap enough to com­pete with the Ap­ple II, but power users could spec it up be­yond fam­ily car prices with var­i­ous up­grades. This meant the 5150 was a use­ful tool for com­mer­cial soft­ware de­vel­op­ment. And the HDD made han­dling this so much more con­ve­nient.

CD C:\

The hard drive was so pop­u­lar and be­come so es­sen­tial, IBM de­cided to ship one as stan­dard equip­ment in its next-gen PC - the mighty XT. It was a Sea­gate drive, with 10MB of stor­age. That’s not a typo - ten megabytes. Keep in mind that in 1983, the XT’s 5.25-inch floppy drive could only han­dle disks with a 360KB ca­pac­ity. Yeah. Stor­age has come on a LOT since then.

To­day, we con­nect our in­ter­nal HDDs via thin SATA ca­bles that only go in one way with a sat­is­fy­ing click. In the be­gin­ning though, hard drives used a range of very com­plex con­nec­tions and it wasn’t un­til 1986 that West­ern Dig­i­tal came up with the iconic rib­bon cable and its IDE - or in­te­grated drive elec­tron­ics - stan­dard.

It was called IDE be­cause it in­te­grated the hard drive’s elec­tronic con­troller into the hard drive it­self. Pre­vi­ously, you needed a whole sep­a­rate cir­cuit board to han­dle the shuf­fling of data back and forth. This meant that you could now buy an en­tire stor­age sys­tem in 3.5-inch case about the size of a pa­per­back, shove it in your PC, and get TENS of megabytes of rel­a­tively fast, re­li­able stor­age.

IDE quickly evolved into a more open stan­dard called ATA. The Ad­vanced Tech­nol­ogy At­tach­ment for­mat made the most of IBM’s new AT PC and its blis­ter­ing 6MHz CPU.

The prob­lem with ATA was that it used a flat rib­bon cable that - on ear­lier drives any­way - it was all too easy to jam into the back of the HDD the wrong way around. It was also nec­es­sary to have one hard drive set to “Master” and all oth­ers set to “Slave” by phys­i­cally set­ting jumper switches on the back of the drive it­self. Many a 1990s-era PC su­pergeek spent long Satur­day evenings peer­ing at the badly-printed jumper set­tings di­a­gram that came with his new HDD, try­ing, lit­er­ally, to fig­ure out which way was up. Please note: if you set the jumpers wrong, the HDD wouldn’t start.


The IBM AT had a 20MB hard drive. Rich lairs would up­grade this to a mas­sive 40MB HDD. The first PC my fam­ily bought - an Os­borne 486SX, you may re­call - had a huge 125MB HDD.

The Ad­vanced Tech­nol­ogy At­tach­ment for­mat made the most of IBM’s new AT PC...

Now that’s a com­puter! The hum­ble IDE cable. I re­ally miss those early Xbox con­trollers...

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