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Remembering RAMAC

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Today's iPod-toting hipsters have no idea how much they owe to an unremarkable little building in downtown San Jose.

It was there, at 99 Notre Dame Ave., nearly 50 years ago, that a small band of IBM engineers developed the RAMAC, the first system for storing data on magnetic disks. The refrigerator-size beast was a technological breakthrough, and it's considered by most to be the forerunner of today's hard drives.

The invention of this bulky assembly of 50 spinning platters is being honored tonight by a worldwide engineering association as a ``milestone moment'' in engineering. It's an honor that could further help efforts to create a museum honoring the innovation performed at the former IBM lab.

``This recognition moves it from being viewed as a piece of machinery to a revolutionary computer system,'' said Al Hoagland, director of the Institute for Information Storage Technology and a professor of electrical engineering at Santa Clara University.

In computing circles, the RAMAC's reputation is already well-established.

Before the advent of magnetic disk storage, computers stored their information on rolls of magnetic tape or coded punch cards. Retrieving information could take hours or days. And banks and other companies often processed their data just once a week.

``It was a radical innovation,'' said Hoagland, who worked for IBM for 28 years. Transactions that might take days to process before could now be accomplished in minutes, Hoagland said.

Today, just a few of the original RAMACs are known to exist. One sits outside Hoagland's office on the third floor of the engineering building at Santa Clara University. On loan from IBM, the machine is being restored by students.

Hoagland hopes to have a fully functional RAMAC by next year, in time for the 50th anniversary of its unveiling by IBM.

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