My friend Michael S. Malone celebrated the 60th anniversary of disk-memory (as in disk drive) today on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. Malone is an engaging writer and a gifted historian who didn’t disappoint in his account of IBM’s move west to San Jose in search of a better way for computers to remember things.
Rey Johnson and his crew at 99 Notre Dame in San Jose came up with a pretty fair solution, given that it’s still widely used today. But they didn’t come up with it before nearly killing themselves, as Malone explains, when the 20-pound magnetic disks they were spinning would cut loose and fly across the lab.
I remember that the engineers involved in those early days referred to the massive 305 RAMAC disk drive as “the bologna slicer,” because the two dozen rotating disks were reminiscent of a deli machine.
Anyway, 10 years ago I wrote for the Mercury News about how the particular piece of history at 99 Notre Dame was in trouble. Today, I’ll note, the building is still there. The San Jose Redevelopment Agency, however, is no more.
Here’s what I wrote:
CITY’S PRIORITIES PUT PARKING BEFORE SILICON VALLEY HISTORY
You’ve got to worry about a city whose claim to fame is ample parking.
No, San Jose isn’t there yet, but it’s got a shot. Maybe you’ve read about the city’s plan to knock down a building where tech history was made in order to put up a parking garage.
The scheme has caused a ruckus between the city’s redevelopment agency (division of parking proliferation) and the county court system, which just moved into the building after spending a lot of your money to renovate it.
But that fight misses the point. The point is the building at 99 Notre Dame Ave. needs to be saved.
In 1952, IBMer Rey Johnson opened the company’s first West Coast lab. Soon Johnson’s crew was developing the first magnetic hard disk drive — a humongous machine called RAMAC, with disks the size of trash can lids.
The machine marked the birth of the digital storage technology that makes possible personal computers, digital cameras, the Internet and much of the rest of everyday life.
“Basically, no one believed this would work, ” says Al Hoagland, who worked on the RAMAC and provides a little historical perspective.
Ah, historical perspective. Hoagland says work at the Notre Dame lab went a long way to making Silicon Valley what it is today.
So, what kind of city would eradicate history and a potential claim to fame?
Hint: All in the same day in November, San Jose City Council members voted to begin the process of declaring 99 Notre Dame a historic landmark and then voted for a parking plan that calls for tearing the historic building down. (Who needs a historic building when you’ve got a historic spot?)
This is the same city with a plan to hire street musicians and mimes to give downtown a little character. What’s next? Hiring squeegee guys to annoy drivers at traffic lights?
In short, this is a city that sometimes confuses style for substance and often ends up with neither.
Hoagland, who today runs the Institute for Information Storage Technology at Santa Clara University, would like to build a museum in the old lab. A museum that would show us all the importance of what went on there.
It’s not a technology story, he says. It’s a sociological story. A story of an invention that really did change the world.
But Hoagland’s idea would require city help. And that’s not good news.
This is the city whose redevelopment agency watched the county spend $3 million to turn 99 Notre Dame into a Family Court annex without clearly warning the court about its plans to knock the place down. (Wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise.)
It’s not as if there is no hope. In February, the court let Hoagland and his Magnetic Disk Heritage Center put up seven photo panels that tell the story of 99 Notre Dame. (To find the exhibit, empty your pockets, remove your belt and pass through the metal detectors.)
And there is still time. While the city council did accept a recommendation to build a 965-space garage where the historic building is now, it will take months or years to acquire the property and work out the fine details. The council could still decide to do something smart — find another place to park or build a garage around the building.
Or the city could try my solution: Let the court stay through the remaining six years of its lease with owner Barry Swenson Builders. Then buy the building and work with Hoagland on the museum. But that is getting ahead of the game, as Hoagland reminds me.
“Our overriding focus, ” he says, “is to keep the building from being knocked over by a bulldozer.”