I remember the first time looked into the guts of a hard drive. It was an RL02 connected to a PDP 11/44. The thing was huge, over 2 feet wide with room for a single platter of shiny dark brown ferrous material. The 5 mega-byte disks were removable and each was stored in a white and blue plastic case. There was a shock sensor on the handle that changed colour if the thing was dropped so some dumb ape wouldn’t put a warped disk into the drive and forever wreck the heads.

The most impressive sound the drive made was the satisfying clunk the drive made when the heads were being retracted. Then, there was the whirling sound of the platter spinning up to speed that sounded just like a jet engine starting up. Finally, there was the swish-swish of the heads gracefully moving over the platter seeking that valuable data stored so perfectly on the disk.

A friend of mine was hired as a sysop for a large mainframe back in the early ’80s. One day, while making a backup from one drive to another, there was a head crash that trashed the current working set of data being backed up. Now, most backup procedures, back then, were on a rotation of three sets of data: oldest, previous and current. This was primarily because of the high cost of each disk pack and three is the minimum you need for a safe backup. You take the current set and back it up over the oldest set which leaves the previous set untouched. Then, the oldest becomes the current, the current becomes the previous and the previous becomes the oldest. Well that’s how it’s suppose to work in theory. Since there was a head crash, the oldest set was only half overwritten with the current set and therefore useless. So, he thought: no problem, just put in the previous backup and restore to the oldest set thus making that the new current set. However, the one thing you don’t do when a head crashes is try and use the drive. What you do is put a “broken” sign on the drive and wait for the repairman. You see, the heads are often totaled in a head crash and if you put another disk pack into the drive, it’s going to get trashed too. But, he put in the previous backup, the last good copy of the data, filling the broken drive and destroying that set as well. There it was: all three copies of the data were lost. Needless to say, he wasn’t a sysop for long. But, I bet that hard drive made some pretty impressive noises before he was through.

Nowadays hard drives are faster, smaller and a lot less fragile. All they seem to do is make an awful rattling sound as the data rushes to and from the heart of the drive. We take them for granted. Where’s the poetry; where’s the grace. I think that part of the beauty of a computer has been lost. There was a certain mystery in its ability to create a kind of music as it went about its duty IMHO.