200 GB in 1986?! Inconceivable!
February 1, 2012 12:39 AM   Subscribe

How common were 200GB hard drives in the mid-1980s? Would institutions like the USGS have had access to them? Would general readers even have understood the term?

I was struck by a seeming anachronism when reading John McPhee's brilliant frontier history/Wyoming geology book Rising from the plains (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 1986, first paperback reprint 1991). On p136 McPhee describes his main interlocutor, David Love, as "the quintessential field geologist [...], the geologist who carries his two-hundred-gigabyte hard disk between his ears."

Initially I found this very strange. Based on my knowledge of tech history, I would have thought 200 GB hard drives would seem positively science fictional to most readers in 1986 (or earlier, when most of this text appeared in the New Yorker). Or that they wouldn't even know the term "gigabyte." Now, Wikipedia tells me that 1GB hard drives were actually available in 1980—in 550lb refrigerator form at a cost of $40,000—but that still makes it seem like 200 GB would have seemed impossible, like writing "10 million terabytes" today.

So is it feasible that the US Geological Survey would have had 200 GB drives in the early-to-mid 1980s? And that general readers would understand the reference? Was McPhee actually trying for what would sounded like an outrageous number? I'd like to understand this choice of imagery in the context that readers would have had at the time.
posted by col_pogo to Computers & Internet (38 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would assume the '91 edition may have involved a rewrite. I don't recall encountering actual multi-gig drives until after '95, so even that usage seems farsighted.
posted by mwhybark at 12:46 AM on February 1, 2012

As a crazy young pup, I worked at a well-funded joint in 87-89 or so that had all the latest toys. We had Macs with 20Mb hard disks (which was a common but luxurious size at a time when dual-floppy, no hard disk computers were still common) and NeXT cubes with insanely large 400MB hard disks that seemed unusably large at the time.

(Note that these are megabytes, not gigabytes.)

So, yes, an actual 200Gb hard disk in the mid-80's would be nearly unfathomable. That's 10,000 times larger than what was shipping in mid- to high-end machines, so indeed that's like saying, um... "10 petabytes" today. Definitely science-fiction territory.

But, all that said, it really sounds like McPhee was describing someone's very large and smart brain, so picking a crazy large amount of memory seems like the right choice. That is, he was going for exaggeration. Love was a genius, etc.
posted by rokusan at 1:07 AM on February 1, 2012

I would vote for outrageous number. (Or really, just a very large number; here's a 1986 InfoWorld story about a 40GB optical disk system, for example, so 200GB wouldn't have exactly been unimaginable.)
posted by XMLicious at 1:13 AM on February 1, 2012

Looking at this page, in 1985ish, you are looking at $710 for 10MB, so $14 million dollars for 200GB, or about $29 million in 2011 dollars. That is assuming you have the space for 20,000 hard drives. Realistically, industrial/commercial hard drives would have been available in larger sizes and at a much cheaper cost per GB, but I think 200GB would have been in the realms of sci-fi.

Seconding it as a metaphor for the brain. The article from XMlicious shows that the idea of GB was at least somewhat known.
posted by lrobertjones at 1:40 AM on February 1, 2012

The first "big" hard drive I bought was one gig, around 1994 or 1995. 200 GB would have been outlandishly large.
posted by xil at 1:42 AM on February 1, 2012

Best answer: I was a product manager for storage for one of the large mini-computer manufacturers around that time. Worked on the SASI and SCSI standards. Sealed 8" drives were the performance kings and 5.25 winchester drives were just making the scene.

As others have said, there was nothing approaching 200GB in a single physical device at the time. But my company was working on techniques to have volumes span multiple physical drives, so the idea of a single logical volume of 200GB was theoretically possible (assuming the OS and VTOCs could address it).

I'd imagine the USGS would have known about these techniques and could have had something in that range.
posted by michswiss at 1:45 AM on February 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

nthing science fiction territory, back in the late 80s/early 90s we (the image scanning and OCR firm I worked for) had a 150Mb hard drive that we thought was inconceivably large, and big WORM drives topped out at 40Gb.
posted by hardcode at 1:57 AM on February 1, 2012

So, yes, an actual 200Gb hard disk in the mid-80's would be nearly unfathomable. That's 10,000 times larger than what was shipping in mid- to high-end machines, so indeed that's like saying, um... "10 petabytes" today.

10 petabytes isn't unimaginable today... hell, they're building a super computer not a mile from me with 25 petabytes!
posted by sbutler at 2:00 AM on February 1, 2012

Best answer: I worked on what we then called mainframe computers in the mid-80s and the ubiquitous standard hard drive was the removable 14 inch that had 11 platters and held 300 megabytes. I used to lug them onto planes and the damn things were pretty heavy. Back then, when you had a disk crash, it really was like a car wreck. Those platters would just explode into a million shards and it sounded like a someone broke a thousand windows with a sledge hammer. I remember around that time we started to see these new drives that held 2 gigabytes and took an entire rack -- think the size of a refrigerator. They were prohibitively expensive, so very few companies bought them. We generally had rooms full of rows and rows of the 300 meg removables. So, yeah, 200 gig would have been something we recognized as part of the foreseeable future, but well beyond the reach of even the biggest computer centers.
posted by Lame_username at 2:18 AM on February 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

On the topic of memory, there have been even bigger differences here. I remember buying an IBM XT clone in 1985 and dropping 700 bucks on a 1Mb RAMpage card which was full-size expansion board that came with a tube-full of RAM chips which I had to install myself. Installing 16Gb of RAM - as I have on my laptop - was as unthinkable in 1985 as a 200Gb hard drive.
posted by three blind mice at 3:06 AM on February 1, 2012

I worked for a firm that made shared hard disks for classroom use from 1984 through 1993. Biggest one we ever made had a 5.25 inch, 1GB Maxtor hard drive in it, which IIRC was somewhere around 1990. There wasn't anything like that capacity available in a single drive in any form factor in 1986; 200GB in a single drive would have been completely out of the question.

Even in 2012, I'm still totally impressed that I can hold 64GB on something the size of my fingernail.
posted by flabdablet at 4:06 AM on February 1, 2012

Also if I remember correctly, that 1GB Maxtor drive had eight platters, 15 read/write heads and a dedicated servo surface. It was a beast.
posted by flabdablet at 4:21 AM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I also seem to remember as late as 1998 that we had to manually configure partitions on new hard drives, because Windows wouldn't recognize/run on anything bigger than 16 MB.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 4:31 AM on February 1, 2012

Only tangentially related, but every time I watch the "Back to the Future" movies I notice the exclamations about the DeLorean being powered by 1.21 "jigawatts" from its mini-reactor. So I suspect that for a mid-80's layperson, even having a prefix for counting billions of something was a pretty outlandish idea.
posted by Cheese Monster at 4:53 AM on February 1, 2012

No, pretty much everyone who had been to school and gone over what a "centimeter" and a "kilometer" were had also encountered the rest of the prefixes.
posted by XMLicious at 5:18 AM on February 1, 2012

Considering the layperson idea, but it is McPhee...

In an IBM mainframe context, the 3380 AE4/BE4 units (top of the line at that time) came out in 1985. They had 2.5GB per HDA.
posted by MtDewd at 5:23 AM on February 1, 2012

Layperson comment:

When I was in college (1991-1995) I had a 20MB hard drive and thought it was absolutely HUGE.
posted by Lucinda at 5:25 AM on February 1, 2012

No, pretty much everyone who had been to school and gone over what a "centimeter" and a "kilometer" were had also encountered the rest of the prefixes.

The metric movement lasted for about 15 minutes for most of us '70s kids in the U.S., so encounter /= comprehend. I still have to look stuff up.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 5:32 AM on February 1, 2012

Yeah, but you wouldn't think that a prefix existing for billions was outlandish, would you? That's what I was responding to, Cheese Monster's comment. Even outside of using metric rulers and things electricity is measured in kilowatts and megawatts and gigawatts, radio frequencies are in kilohertz and megahertz, etc.

Or, like, there was a band called Megadeth. It's not like you had to be a nerd or a genius to have heard of these prefixes.
posted by XMLicious at 5:53 AM on February 1, 2012

Best answer: I worked for USGS in the mid-90s while in college, and can pretty much say that even in the mid-90s, if there were 200 GB hard drives floating around, they weren't in our data center. Maybe a 200GB storage array, but single drives? Nope.
posted by jferg at 6:19 AM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It was probably used because it was an incomprehensible huge figure. Up until the mid 90s, even expensive home computers weren't fast enough to create very big photoshop files and you needed very specialized equipment to handle video, so the average person wasn't familiar with the type of data that could ever fill up a single GB of storage.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:21 AM on February 1, 2012

Best answer: In 1986 even if you could have bought a 200GB drive under the vast majority of WinTEL systems you couldn't have used anything but a small portion because the BIOS and disk interface couldn't handle that size. Heck many of the systems shipping with windows 95 couldn't handle disks bigger than 137MB because the a hard limit of the ATA system. Hard drive companies shipping disks bigger than that had various software drive overlays to compensate.
posted by Mitheral at 6:35 AM on February 1, 2012

While people may have heard of prefixes above mega-, they weren't in common parlance. Which is why they could get away with saying "jiggowatts" in Back To The Future. For most people, prefixes such as giga-, peta- etc, if thed heard of them, were pretty much in the same category as concepts like a googol or googolplex. i.e., outlandish.
posted by iotic at 6:42 AM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was the product manager for a line of storage devices for macs in 1993-94 at a mac accessory mail-order company. This was at a time when the prices were crashing and capacity was soaring in HDDs. Our big win was a maxtor 3.5" 1004MB drive for $999.

With the exotic RAID arrays available in 1993, you could've taken 10 of those mechanisms and had an 8GB storage system. It would've been a $15K drive.

OTOH, in 1989, I first encountered machines with 20 Megabyte hard drives in them. As a longtime user of 720 Kilobyte floppy disks, I had no trouble figuring it was over twenty-five times larger. If someone said gigabyte to me then, I might've known it was at least another thousand times as much storage, or I might've found a book and looked up the prefixes.
posted by Mad_Carew at 6:50 AM on February 1, 2012

Also if I remember correctly, that 1GB Maxtor drive had eight platters, 15 read/write heads and a dedicated servo surface. It was a beast.

A friend who owned an offset shop had one of these in '92 or '93, and I remember jet marveling at the thing. If I'm recalling the same thing, it was about the size of a 4-slice toaster.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:54 AM on February 1, 2012

*just* marveling. Who put auto-correct in my OS?
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:55 AM on February 1, 2012

You could look it up in the original articles (New Yorker subscription only).
posted by benk at 6:55 AM on February 1, 2012

Keep in mind, William Gibson's short story "Johnny Memnonic" appeared in 1981, and the title character has a neural implant that allows him to carry "nearly 80 gigabytes of data", so the concept of large volume storage in the gigabyte range was not unknown.
posted by cosmicbandito at 8:05 AM on February 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Just for the record, 10 million terabytes would also be known as 10 exabytes. To the best of my knowledge, no one's really storing data at that kind of scale yet, but the big storage vendors (like EMC & IBM) are planning for it for the next few years.
posted by deadmessenger at 8:08 AM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Given the mid-80s, let's answer with a contemporary reference:

You'll recall Doc Brown's reaction when Marty said they'd need gigawatts to send him Back to the Future? Just repeat his baffled exclamation -- "Gigabytes!?"
posted by Rash at 8:12 AM on February 1, 2012

I was watching an early (so probably around 1987?) Star Trek:TNG episode "The Measure of A Man" just last week, and in that episode Data (the android character) revealed his storage capacity as 800 quadrillion bits.
Not really sure what this figure means, in terms I'd understand, I went to Google.
This turns out to be around 91,000 terabytes.
I was hoping it would be a figure that, in today's world, would be rather laughable, but to my 2012 not-too-technical mind, that still sounds like a pretty impressive number.
But I wonder how many years it will be before 91000 terabytes is seen as common-place?
posted by annekenstein at 8:20 AM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I checked, and in the original 1986 article it's a "two-hundred-megabyte hard disk". So that's quite amusing.
posted by oliverburkeman at 8:29 AM on February 1, 2012 [9 favorites]

I spent about $900 on a 60mb drive in the mid 80s. It blew people's minds when I told them I had that much storage.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:13 AM on February 1, 2012

In 1994, a friend of mine's father got his first home PC with a 1GB hard drive on it. When I told my own father about this, he spluttered and said 'Why on earth would you need that much space? Is he running the space program from his office?'.

My phone now has 32 times as much storage and it's three years old.
posted by Happy Dave at 9:19 AM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

In 1992, A bequest from my grandmother enabled me to buy an Atari Mega-STE which had a 40Mb SCSI drive. It was unfeasibly fast compared to the stack of floppy drives I was used to, and I was briefly the envy of my technologically-minded pals.

Not long after I remember paying £200 for 4Mb of Ram. Yes, megabytes. Now I feel old.
posted by nicktf at 12:15 PM on February 1, 2012

I worked for a large international research-oriented company whose entire data farm (that's what we called it) in 1993/1994 was a total of 4 Gbyte across the US and UK. I was told by the head of IT that this was about the max of any private corporation at the time. It took up two entire data centers.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 12:56 PM on February 1, 2012

Best answer: I started working with mainframes in 1990. The removable drives that lame_username mentioned were gone. The biggest storage systems we had were a refrigerator sized box that stored about 18GB, plus the controller - another refrigerator sized box. That was the cutting-edge 3390 mod-9. Most of the storage systems actually in use were 3380's (maybe 500MB per refrigerators), or 3390-1 (2GB per refrigerator).

We had more than 200 GB in total, but it took up half a building.
posted by Diag at 1:17 PM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers. I was a little bit arbitrary with the best answers, buy anyone addressing large-scale institutional storage was particularly helpful. In any case, oliverburkeman has shown that at some point a change in the text was made—presumably to make the reference seem more up-to-date. But when? The book I'm reading certainly feels new, but apart from the notice of the "1991 paperback edition" on the copyright page there are no other notices of edition changes. And as everyone's answers here suggest, even 1991 seems too soon for 200 GB. Would FSG have just gone through and dropped in anachronisms/corrections without noting that a new edition had been made?
posted by col_pogo at 10:43 PM on February 1, 2012

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