The birth of RAM Science

Forrester finds Random Access Memory

In this week's 'An eye for an i', we take a look at Forrester's magnetic-core memory, among the first reliable RAMs.  

We all are too used to our e-comforts. We take them so much for granted that when our mobile, tablet or system hangs for just a wee bit, it is enough to piss us off. But surely, there must have been a time when these systems were not that dependable? That time, in fact, wasn’t that far back.

In the 1950s, the growing field of electronic and digital computing was at a crossroads. Yes, people did want to switch to machines that would be faster and make work easier but the cost involved made them seem uncalled for. Add to this the fact that the operation wasn’t reliable and computers crashed once every 20 minutes to an hour, it surely didn’t look like a prudent investment. Those things were going change through Jay Forrester.

It is one thing to find something when you are looking for something else - the way Thomas Willson ended up with acetylene after setting out for aluminium. Forrester, though, belonged to an entirely different category. He set out searching for reliable memory capability and ended up with magnetic-core memory, which became the standard for the next two decades.

Existing computer memory at that time relied on cathode ray tubes, which were not fast enough for the simulations that the U.S. Navy had in mind. A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, led by Forrester, was roped in for Project Whirlwind to find a solution for the same.

Project Whirlwind

Project Whirlwind led to the development of a three-dimensional magnetic structure called the magnetic-core memory system. On May 11, 1951, Forrester applied for a patent for his design that provided for a vastly superior method of storing memory.

Consisting of a plane made of wires, the structure had magnetic rings called cores. With each ring containing one bit of data, every bit of data could be accessed by a single read-write cycle on the memory plane.

The magnetic-core memory thus turned out to be the first random access memory (RAM) that was not only reliable, but also allowed for high-speed access. It went a long way in advancing digital computing as it remained the norm till the 1970s, when Intel came up with their memory chip.

As for Forrester, he left the project in 1956 when things were moving rather smoothly through its final stages. He left engineering and joined the MIT Sloan School of Management. He, however, brought with him his methods which led to the development of a field called system dynamics, wherein computational analysis of the socio-economic behavior of countries and companies is carried out.

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Printable version | Oct 19, 2021 11:53:20 AM |

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