Who invented the hard drive in the computer?

The hard drive is an integral component of modern computers that allows for mass storage of data. But who exactly invented this vital piece of technology that helped usher in the digital age? There are a few key individuals that made critical early contributions to the development of hard disk drives, paving the way for the devices we rely on today.

Quick Answers:

– The first concept for a magnetic hard drive storage device is attributed to Gustav Tauschek in 1932.

– Commercial hard disk drives emerged in 1956 with IBM’s RAMAC 305 system.

– Key pioneers in early hard drive development include Reynold B. Johnson, Albert Hoagland, and William Goddard.

– IBM was the first company to mass produce commercial hard disk drives.

So while there is no single inventor credited with inventing the hard drive, it was advancements and contributions from multiple engineers and companies in the mid-20th century that led to the hard drives we know today. Keep reading for more details on the evolution and history of this revolutionary computer component.

The Path to Modern Hard Drives

Precursors to Hard Drives

Before the invention of hard drives, early computers in the 1940s and 50s relied on other methods for data storage and memory. These included:

– Punch cards – Stiff cards that stored data as patterns of punched holes read by electromechanical card readers. Used with early computers like UNIVAC I.

– Magnetic tape – Long strips of plastic film coated with magnetic material to record data. Tape drives were common computer storage in the 1950s-60s.

– Magnetic drum memory – Metallic cylinders coated in magnetic material to store data. Drums rotated past read/write heads. Limited storage and slow access.

– Delay line memory – Used the propagation delay of sound waves through a medium like mercury to briefly store data. Extremely short storage times.

These early storage methods had major limitations in their speed, capacity, and reliability. This drove the need for engineers to develop better solutions, paving the way for magnetic hard drives.

Inventing the Hard Drive Concept

The earliest concept for what would become modern hard drives is attributed to Austrian engineer Gustav Tauschek. In 1932, Tauschek obtained a patent in Austria for a device he called the “magnetic drum”. This consisted of a wheel that spun at 1200 RPM with magnetic recording media on its surface.

Tauschek’s magnetic drum invention established the basic concept of using a rotating disk coated in magnetic material to store and retrieve data. However, his device was never actually constructed and remained just a concept decades ahead of its time. The key principles he patented nevertheless laid critical groundwork for future hard drive development.

Early Hard Drive Prototypes and Technologies

Building off Tauschek’s concept, subsequent engineers worked to turn magnetic data storage devices into reality:

– In 1937, German audio equipment manufacturer AEG created a working prototype of a magnetic disk drive for data storage. The device used a 50cm magnetic steel disk rotating at 1200rpm, providing short term data storage.

– During World War II in 1944, University of Pennsylvania researchers developed a data storage device based on 50cm oxide-coated metal disks. This “Disk File” system could store about 500,000 bits of data.

– In 1949, California-based company Engineering Research Associates (ERA) produced a magnetic data storage drum that functioned as a computer memory system. The drum stored 4,000 bits per square inch.

– In 1952, ERA launched the Atlas computing system which used a magnetic drum memory unit that stored 16,000 bits per square inch. This became a basis for commercial systems.

These prototypes and technologies were limited but important steps showing the early viability of high capacity disk magnetic storage systems. However, widespread commercial production and adoption was still years away.

IBM RAMAC and the First Commercial Hard Drives

The first commercialized hard disk drive emerged out of IBM in 1956 with the release of the RAMAC 305 system. RAMAC stood for “Random Access Method of Accounting and Control”.

The RAMAC 305 used a stack of 50 spinning magnetic disks that were 24 inches in diameter. Magnetic read/write heads on arms accessed data on the disks while they rotated at 1200 RPM. This allowed random access to stored data versus sequential access like tape drives.

RAMAC 305 Disk Drive Specifications
Storage capacity: 5 MB
Disk size: 24 in (61 cm) in diameter
Number of disks: 50
Data transfer rate: 8,800 characters per second
Access time: 600 ms (average)
Spin rate: 1,200 rpm

The RAMAC 305 system with the first commercial hard drive had a storage capacity of 5MB and sold for $35,000 per month at that time. While minuscule by today’s standards, this was a massive leap in data capacity over previous storage methods. RAMAC systems quickly became popular with businesses for accounting, payroll, and inventory.

IBM had established itself at the forefront of hard drive technology and would dominate the market in subsequent decades.

Key Hard Drive Pioneers at IBM

Several of the brilliant engineering minds at IBM were instrumental in the creation of the RAMAC 305 hard drive system:

– **Reynold B. Johnson** – Leading IBM engineer and manager for the team that developed the RAMAC system. Known as the “father of magnetics” for his pioneering work with magnetic data storage.

– **Albert Hoagland** – Mechanical engineer who designed the disk stack and access arm assembly for the RAMAC hard drive. Later directed hard drive engineering and manufacturing.

– **William Goddard** – Electrical engineer and expert in magnetic recording. Helped develop the read/write recording heads for RAMAC. Later led IBM’s hard drive research and helped grow drive capacity.

Under the direction of Johnson, Hoagland, Goddard and other bright engineers at IBM’s San Jose research labs, the technological hurdles were overcome to engineer the first reliable, high-capacity commercial hard drive. Their breakthroughs established IBM as the dominant hard drive company.

Hard Drive Advancements in the 1960s-1970s

Following the RAMAC system, IBM and other technology companies made rapid advancements in hard drive storage capacity, performance, and reliability through the 1960s and 70s:

Storage Capacity Growth

– 1961 – IBM 1311 Disk Storage Unit offered 2.6MB capacity.

– 1962 – IBM 1301 Disk Storage Unit offered 28MB.

– 1970 – IBM 3330 “Merlin” drive offered 100MB.

– 1979 – IBM 3370 offered 317.5MB capacity.

Capacity grew from megabytes to gigabytes as engineers fit more data onto smaller, faster spinning platters coated with new magnetic materials.

Physical Size Reduction

– 1956: RAMAC 350 disk stack was 60in long x 68in high.

– 1980s: 5.25-inch hard disk drives emerged for personal computers.

– 1988: PrairieTek 220 2.5-inch HDD for laptops introduced.

Newer drive technologies allowed dramatic size reduction. The desktop computers of the 1980s could contain small yet high capacity hard drives.

Performance Improvements

– Disk rotation speed increased from 1,200 RPM to 3,600 RPM or more.

– Data transfer rates went from thousands to millions of bits per second.

– Average seek time reduced from 100s of milliseconds to just milliseconds.

Faster spindle motor speeds, baud rates, and seek times resulted in major performance gains. This allowed computers to read and write data to hard drives much faster.

New Methods and Materials

– Winchester technology introduced sealed hard drives that were not removable.

– Servo motors precisely controlled read/write head movement.

– MR read heads enabled higher bit densities.

– Plated media, thin-film disks improved storage density.

Technical advances in mechanical design and magnetic materials pushed hard drive capabilities forward rapidly.

The Rise of Competitors

While IBM dominated the early decades of commercial hard drive development, competitors emerged starting in the 1960s:

Control Data Corporation (CDC)

– Formed in 1957 and soon became a leader in hard drives for mainframe computers.

– Pioneered use of aluminum platters instead of oxide-coated disks for better performance.

– CDC drives became a main rival to IBM’s in the 1960s and 70s.


– Known early on for magnetic tape technology and “Is it live or is it Memorex?” ads.

– Formed relationship with CDC and shipped its first hard drive in 1972.

– Memorex became a major supplier of hard disk drives by the 1980s.


– Japanese company that began developing hard disk drives in the mid 1960s.

– First drive was the NEC D2211 in 1967 with 10MB capacity.

– By 1980s they were among the top HDD companies.


– Another Japanese firm that started producing hard drives around 1972.

– Grew to become one of the largest HDD makers alongside rivals like IBM and CDC.

Quantum and Other Independents Emerge

– Throughout the 1970s and 80s, many newer independent hard drive makers emerged such as Quantum, Micropolis, Priam and others.

– These competitors offered alternative sources of hard drives outside IBM dominance.

– Quantum became particularly well known for drives in desktop PCs by the 1990s.

The Hard Drive Industry Matures

By the 1990s, hard disk drives had become a mature, widely adopted computer component for both enterprise and consumer markets:

High Volume Production

– Estimated 55 million hard drives shipped in 1991 alone as volumes ramped.

– Factories dedicated to high volume hard drive manufacturing opened around the world.

– Mature production processes allowed economies of scale and lower costs per megabyte.

Standardization Emerges

– ST-506 and ESDI introduced standard interfaces for attaching drives to computers.

– AT Attachment (ATA) interface later introduced specifically for internal PC hard drives.

– SCSI became a common standard for enterprise and server drives.

Standards made hard drives interchangeable between systems and added flexibility.

Diversification of the Market

– Dozens of companies now competing in the hard drive market including IBM, Seagate, Western Digital, and more.

– Hard drives tailored for different markets including consumer PCs, network servers, mainframes, and minicomputers.

– Market opened for independent drive makers supplying OEMs and system builders.

Hard drives became commoditized components made by various competing vendors.

Booming Sales and Revenues

– Hard drive sales revenue hit $10 billion in 1990 with over 85 million units shipping.

– Markets expanded across consumer, desktop, enterprise, industrial and specialty segments.

– Hard drives accounted for about 40% of all computer hardware sales in the early 1990s.

Mass adoption of PCs and IT systems fueled enormous hard drive demand and sales. The market flourished as an essential data storage technology.

The Present and Future of Hard Drives

While other data storage technologies like solid state drives and cloud storage have emerged, hard disk drives remain essential for modern computing:

Ongoing Technological Evolutions

– Track density continues improving through new read/write head advances.

– Larger capacity 9-12TB+ 3.5″ hard drives now common even in consumer PCs.

– Helium-filled drives further optimize capacities in enterprise data centers.

– Bus speeds up to 12Gb/s enable faster data transfers.

Engineers keep finding ways to pack more data onto spinning platters at lower costs.

Applications Across Industries

– Hard drives still widely used as primary storage in desktop and laptop PCs. Also frequently used as secondary storage.

– Data centers rely on racks of enterprise-class hard drives for mass storage of critical business data.

– Hard drives ubiquitous in consumer electronics like DVRs, game consoles, and media players.

– Specialized and ruggedized hard drives meet needs from military to aerospace to automotive uses.

The unique advantages of rotating magnetic storage ensure hard drives remain a crucial technology.

Consolidation Among Top Vendors

– Recent mergers have consolidated market share among just a few major players: Western Digital, Seagate, Toshiba.

– Competition remains on technology, pricing, performance and features.

– Startups attempting newer hard drive innovations often get acquired once successful.

A once crowded hard drive market has coalesced around the surviving top vendors. But newcomers still try to disrupt the space.

Long Term Outlook

– Hard drives expected to retain dominance for high capacity, low cost secondary storage in coming years.

– Advances in flash storage may eventually reduce demand for hard drives in some applications.

– Cloud storage provides centralized alternatives but still relies heavily on hard drives on the backend.

– New technologies could augment hard drives but magnetic platters will remain a key bulk data repository.

Hard disk drives have already adapted to new paradigms and will continue evolving for years to come.


The hard disk drive is a product of decades of ingenious engineering, building off foundations laid in the 1930s and 40s to create a pillar of modern computing. IBM was at the forefront of early commercial hard drive development and still plays a major role today. But dozens of innovators at many companies contributed to making hard drives a practical, affordable mass storage technology. Ongoing improvements have kept hard drives integral for business, consumer and industrial applications despite new storage competitors. Hard drives look to remain a critical bulk data storage solution even as other technologies emerge. Their evolution over nearly a century speaks to the persistent power of magnetic disk as a unique and versatile data storage medium.