Living in the Future

My talk yesterday at AAAS went well, if too long (the person who was supposed to be flagging the time got distracted, and never gave me any indicators that I was going on, and on, and on… But that’s not really what I want to post about. The thing that triggered this is the speaker giveaway from AAAS, which is a combination laser pointer and 1GB USB drive.

“Big deal,” you say. Those are cheap.” And, yeah, they are, but when you think about it, that’s really kind of amazing.

50 years ago, the laser had barely been invented, and was still in search of a problem. Nobody had yet had the idea that one of the problems to which is was a solution was “What will I use to indicate where I am on a projected slide?”

20 years ago, 1GB was almost unthinkably large. I’m not sure you could get a 1GB hard drive when I was in college. Certainly not an internal one– we were kind of impressed by the 100MB drives in my advisor’s office computer. I’m not sure what I would’ve done in 1991 to generate that amount of data.

The idea that you would get both of those items in a single package, with a weight of about 20 grams, and that the combination would be so cheap that they would literally give them away to people for speaking at a conference would’ve been all but inconceivable.

I’m still waiting on my flying car, but in lots of little ways, living in the future is amazing.

17 thoughts on “Living in the Future

  1. When I first moved from mainframe and set up my own software house, a big investment for my desk-top computer was a ten megabyte add-on hard disk drive which came in a box measuring about 6″x6″x12″. Just before that, back with the mainframe, the company I worked for had invested in IBM’s latest product – with one Mbyte of ram. Hey, we could run three programs simultaneously!

  2. Doing quantum mechanical calculations on a laptop blows my mind. When I entered graduate school in the late 80’s you still needed to use room sized (or at least very specialized) computers to do even fairly low level calculations. Now? Fairly ordinary desktops and laptops can handle many common calculations.

  3. The one that gets me is that my little brother doesn’t really remember a time without the internet…..

    As for making me feel old (which this does) realising that there are undergraduates younger than the film Aladin…

  4. I have a tiny little Kingston thumb drive that holds 32 GB. Most of the mass and volume is plastic casing and the USB plug itself. It cost about $45, so as thumb drives go, it wasn’t all that cheap. But I sometimes imagine going back in time to about 1985 with it. I find some computer geek and speak with him. “I came from 25 years in the future and wanted to show you this. Guess how much memory this holds.” And then watching his mind be blown when I say 32 GB.

  5. Back in the mid-1990s when the Evil Overlord List was being compiled, item number 99 was, “Any data file of crucial importance will be padded to 1.45Mb in size.” I suspect that your average undergraduate student today (and possibly some readers of this blog) would have no idea of the reasoning behind that one. Hint: the highest capacity writable storage device at the time, the double-sided double-density floppy, had a capacity of 1.44 megabytes.

  6. Eric:

    Actually, it was possible to fit about 2.1Mb on one floopy disk, but that required non-standard formatting and special code to read it so there was no way to use them in a vanilla DOS session. 2.1Mb floppies were famously used for Win95 installation (I still have the stack of 11 floppies with Win95 somewhere).

    With careful formatting it was possible to have about 1.7Mb on one floppy without removing possibility of DOS access.

  7. I’m with Clam: I remember using CP/M (anyone remember CP/M?) on the machines at the magazine, and I remember the day all of us editors gathered around the one user station that had just gotten the 10MB–unheard of!–hard drive, oohing and ahhing at the amazing amount of storage space that one person had. Luckily for peace on the staff, more of the amazing 10MB hard drives were on order…

  8. The odd thing about computers was that all of this was predicted. I remember back in the 1970s. Everyone was talking about digital convergence. Records, movies, television shows, books, phone calls, documents, you name it, were all going to go digital, driven by the inexorable falling costs of storing, transmitting and processing data. For the most part, the time line was fairly accurate. No one understood all of the ramifications, but for the last 40 years hardware has been improving more or less on schedule and seems likely to continue improving.

    Interestingly, we talked about computer viruses, trojan horses, and robotic networks back then, and we came up with all sorts of ways of fighting them that involved access control, encryption, and protection domains, and for the most part the battle is going as expected. We even discussed the problems of rights management. The AP had turned off the Arpanet feed at SAIL back in ’74 citing unauthorized distribution, and they are still whining about it to this very day.

    The laser was less well predicted. The general feel was that its uses would be industrial, and more and more powerful lasers would replace various kinds of heavy tooling and weapons. Lasers were also expected to drive down the costs of telecommunications and data storage, but that was more of a computer thing than a laser physics thing. Remember, the first video laser disks came out in the 70s. They were as big as LPs.

    The computer revolution was most unusual in that it was so well predicted.

    P.S. A friend of mine had an HP 35 and wished he had a time machine to go back and show people 20 years before how computers had progressed. He imagined they’d be amazed by their calculator. I suggested that next week he come back in time and show me his time machine and that I would be even more impressed.

  9. I’m real sure my first thumb drive cost more than $45 for 1 GB because I recall watching the $10 per 100 MB price point.

    I also know for a fact that GB storage systems required a “farm” in the 1980s, but I’m pretty sure I used a GB disk twenty years ago. However, it was “striped” across a suitable number of physical devices.

    I don’t see what is impressive about 1 MB of ram, since every computer I used after 1970 had that much memory until I bought an early PC. And, yes, I used CP/M and Wordstar, but tossed the 8″ floppies a long time ago.

  10. My brother was one of the first nine students in Britain to graduate BSc in computer science. He studied at a polytechnic and did a sandwich course with one practical year in industry. He worked for one year for Standard Oil Europe and for his undergraduate thesis he wrote an index programme for their mainframe computer, this was around 1967. The computer in question was the size of a small one family house and its central memory was 64Kb!

  11. I don’t see what is impressive about 1 MB of ram, since every computer I used after 1970 had that much memory until I bought an early PC.

    But in 1970 that computer would have had its own room. Desktop computers with that much memory were not widely available until the latter half of the 1980s. They were certainly available by 1988 (the Mac Plus I bought that year had that much), but the original 1984 Mac had only 128k. And the Commodore 64 we bought in 1982 was the hot setup at the time because it had a whopping 64k of RAM, four times as much as anything else then on the market.

  12. MRW @11:

    The plot appears to be of hard drives advertised for retail sale in the personal computer market (i.e. not including mainframe and minicomputer systems). The raw data appears to have come from here.

    What that plot doesn’t show is the price – over the period 1980-2010 the cost per megabyte of storage for the drives shown has dropped by almost 10^7, going from hundreds of dollars per megabyte down to a few cents per gigabyte.

  13. I feel old. I remember punch cards and once seeing a PH.D. thesis data set and program being trundled down the hall. It was in a six foot high specially designed filing cabinet for punch cards.

    My first computer, a Mac SE, had 1 MG of RAM and a 20MG hard drive. What more was needed?

  14. Fifty years ago I was in freshman physics at Leland Stanford Jr. University when in comes Prof. Panofsky with a clear balloon, in which there was a black, Mickey Mouse ears balloon. Problem, how to pop the black balloon, without harming the clear balloon. Prof. Panofsky did just that, by focusing a laser on the black balloon. So how can you imply that there were no important problems best solved with a laser 50 years ago?

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