The Most Important Hardware Innovations Ever - The Hard Drive

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Saving the Best for Last

Now we’re getting to the good stuff. Here are the top three hardware innovations we simply couldn’t do without. These industry standards live strong today in each and every PC and Mac sold. While they’ve changed formats, sizes, shapes, and even underwent radical changes, they live in history as the forerunners of the modern PC. Again, this list follows a specific order to determine the greatest hardware innovation ever made. This list details the top three:

3. The Hard Drive

The floppy, CD-ROM, DVD, USB Flash Drive, and Memory Card are all extensions of hard drive technology. Without the hard drive, all these other technologies wouldn’t exist. The idea of a bit or a byte came from the necessity to transform information going into a hard drive into 0s and 1s that could later be loaded into the RAM and used by the processor.

The hard drive had humble beginnings. Like most computer tech, it was born out of the need for a means to store the information going into a processor in a medium that was both reliable and separate from the rest of the unit in case of problems or emergencies.

The hard drive technology used today isn’t much different from the technology used in the 80s during the heyday of the processor. The magnetic platter that is recorded using varying magnetic states and a spin head has mostly been refined, but with the exception of solid-state hard drives, the technology really hasn’t evolved much further than reliability and capacity.

The first hard drives could store megabytes, not gigabytes or terabytes. Eventually, in accordance with Moore’s Law, capacities started getting greater and greater. Today, we’ve hit a stagnant point. The advent of the 1 Tb hard drive was an exciting time, but today, a 1.5 Tb or even 2 Tb drive is more than enough for those that want to store exceptionally large files. The lack of demand for larger volumes has caused the hard drive industry to instead focus on solid-state technology that is much more reliable due to a lack of moving parts. Furthermore, the technology behind hard drives is being further refined to increase affordability. Today, in 2009, a 500 Gb hard drive is highly affordable, whereas 9 years ago, it would’ve cost you a fortune.

The hard drive takes our number three spot because it has managed to stay relatively the same over the years, and yet still stores our OS, our music, our movies, our games, our documents and anything else we can imagine inside it. Suffice it to say that if it wasn’t for the hard drive, today’s PCs wouldn’t exist.

2. Random Access Memory (RAM)

The impact of the hard drive had consequences for the things we wanted to store, but what about taking those things out of storage and actually using them? Enter the RAM, another piece of tech that has maintained its position of power inside the motherboard, side-by-side its buddy, the CPU.

RAM was also created out of necessity when considering the implications of a centralized processor unit. The RAM exists solely for the reason that the CPU cannot use the stored data that is inside the hard drive. Rather, the programs are loaded into the working memory of the RAM and then used and returned to the hard drive. The process is reminiscent of a library lending system. The library acts as the hard drive, and the act of borrowing the book is the equivalent of putting the information into the RAM.

RAM has changed a bit over the years, taking on new capacities and much, much higher speeds. A computer engineer in the 90s couldn’t imagine the types of speed we’re now getting out of DDR3 RAM. That same engineer would also be astounded by the fact that today we have RAM cartridges that reach up to 4 Gb each. These increases in speed and capacity have dramatically changed the landscape of computing.

With solid-state drives now on the horizon, the line between RAM and ROM is starting to definitively blur. No longer is the distinction as it is with the current hard drive setup. Rather, what’s happening is that the solid-state memory is moving into MRAM, or the persistent memory state I talked about in the previous article.

Even though the RAM is incredibly important, it doesn’t even come close to the…

1. Central Processing Unit (CPU or Processor)

In the absence of the CPU, the world as we know it today wouldn’t exist with the technology it does. The CPU isn’t the single greatest hardware innovation the PC has ever known, this logic handler is the greatest electronics advancement in the history of mankind. The CPU has propelled human knowledge and understanding of everything from biology to astrophysics into the stratosphere.

Without the CPU, we would have never put the Hubble telescope in orbit. Without the CPU, no personal computers would exist. Without the CPU, countless mathematical inquiries and scientific number crunching would have never occurred. Without this piece of technology, countless lives would be lost per year as a result of not having the medicine only a machine is capable of producing in large quantities.

We open our computers each and every day and take this hardware component for granted. It powers not only PCs, but iPhones, Furbies, cars, and everything else in-between. We owe the modern era to the CPU’s onslaught of progress. Thanks to it, computerized factories became the norm in the 21st century. Countless jobs were created – even an entirely new branch of human understanding, computational science, was invented.

The CPU tops our list because it has far reaching consequences outside the PC arena. This landmark achievement stands in the top ten achievements for mankind overall. While other inventions might have been more historical, none has left a mark on society the way this simple chip has.

Looking towards the future, the CPU is looking to go quantum. When we make the leap to quantum computing, some scientists have posited that it would equivalent to when the CPU was first made. The leap in processing will be so large that it may give way to the development of androids and holographic technology. We’ll just have to wait and see what the future holds for the “heart” of the computer revolution.

This post is part of the series: Coputer Hardware Inventions - The Top 10 List

Shaping our world in ways that have an impact on every aspect of our lives. Here we discuss the top 10 most important computer hardware inventions ever made.

  1. Innovation Countdown: 9, 8, 7…
  2. Innovation Countdown: 6, 5, 4…
  3. Innovation Countdown: 3, 2, 1