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A former high school science teacher became the father of the hard disk drive system
Reynold B. Johnson leaning on RAMAC, circa 1956

Reynold B. Johnson was a renowned and prolific inventor who led the team that created the world’s first commercial computer disk drive, RAMAC, or Random Access Method for Accounting and Control, in the 1950s. His path to that pioneering development, and beyond, is integral to the history of technology and IBM.

Johnson devised his first notable invention as a high school science teacher in Michigan, building an electromechanical device to automate the grading of pencil-marked multiple-choice tests. His assistants were two court-assigned students who had stolen a radio from the school. Johnson embraced the chance to transform their penance into a learning experience.

When the inventor presented the test-correcting contraption to IBM, the company professed no interest. But Columbia University professor Benjamin Wood, the creator of the multiple-choice test and an IBM consultant, was intrigued. “Dr. Wood saw the possibilities in the test scoring machine but had a tough time selling it to management until he took it to Thomas J. Watson [Sr.],” recalled Johnson. “Mr. Watson immediately grasped the concept and its commercial possibilities.”

From schoolteacher to prolific inventor
The two best decisions of a lifetime

IBM hired the schoolteacher in 1934 to be an engineer in its New York operations, where he completed the system’s development. The IBM 805 Test Scoring Machine first hit the market in 1937 and found broad acceptance over the next few years, and particularly during World War II, when the government used the system to help assign jobs to recruits. Johnson spent the next 15 years turning out hundreds of inventions, many involving the processing of key-punch cards, which were then the industry standard for storing data.

In 1952, IBM dispatched Johnson to a new lab in a small town called San Jose, which had yet to become the heart of Silicon Valley, with the remit to lead a band of engineers in groundbreaking experimentation. “During those years I made the two best decisions of my life,” Johnson said. “First, I decided we should experiment in random-access storage. I soon discovered that several other people around the country were toying with the same thought. They were trying to store randomly accessed information on all kinds of media, such as wire and tape strips. The other decision that I’m proudest of was to concentrate on storing information on laminated disks.”

Exponentially faster data manipulation

The team scrutinized the laborious process that computers used to access data, which involved running a stack of hole-punched cards through a machine and shuffling linearly through the data. After four years the team revealed a historic solution. The IBM 305 RAMAC — or simply RAMAC, as it came to be known — was the first computer to use a random-access disk drive. Pre-RAMAC, information retrieval through a computer took hours or even days. By contrast, RAMAC could access and manipulate data exponentially faster — in seconds. This massive leap in speed and efficiency made the relational database possible and forever changed the way businesses would process information. The progenitor of all hard-drive disks created since, it laid the groundwork for everything from space flight and ATMs to search engines and e-commerce. 

By the time he retired from IBM in 1971, Johnson counted some 90 patents to his name. That same year, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers recognized him with the Machine Design Award for his “numerous ingenious inventions and innovations.” In his final years at the company, he was named an IBM Fellow and served on the company’s Educational Advisory Board. He used those posts, he said, “to see what new tools of learning I could create.” Subsequently helming an education consulting company in Palo Alto, California, he made a microphonograph that let children point a device at a picture or word, which the gadget would then say aloud. (Fisher-Price leveraged this into its Talk-to-Me Books, which garnered a Toy of the Year award.)

The classroom of the future

In addition to contributing such practical innovations, Johnson made broader predictions that have cemented his status as a visionary. “The classroom of the future,” he said upon being named an IBM Fellow, “will be as different from today’s as the computer center is different from the accounting room with its high stools of a few decades ago. A great deal of voluntary and individualized education will take place with the help of such technical devices as television and tape recorders.” As for computers, he added: “Before the end of century, they will be as common in the classroom as blackboards are today.”

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan awarded Johnson the National Medal of Technology. Six years later, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers established the Reynold B. Johnson Information Storage Systems Award. Johnson died in 1998, but time has not diminished his legacy. Few hold a higher place in the pantheons of the computer industry and at IBM than Rey Johnson.

Before the end of century, computers will be as common in the classroom as blackboards are today Reynold B. Johnson Inventor and RAMAC team leader
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