The man who revolutionized the way hard drives work has been awarded the Millennium Technology Prize, an honor awarded only every second year.
Stuart Parkin received the prize of one million euros (approximately US$1.39 million) from Technology Academy Finland, a partnership of industry and government in the country. It’s sometimes described as the tech equivalent of the Nobel prizes for science.
The award isn’t simply for inherent technical achievement but rather for the way somebody’s work has improved people’s lives. Previous winners of the award include Tim Berners-Lee for the World Wide Web and Linus Torvalds for the Linux kernel.
Parkin developed the spin valve sensor. That made it possible to store data on a hard drive by manipulating, and referring to, an electron’s “spin” rather than its charge.
The sensor, developed in the late 1980s and 1990s made it possible to detect magnetic regions on a drive that were 1,000 times smaller than were previously usable. In turn that discovery increased capacity in drives of the same physical size by a factor of 1,000.
The technology was commercialized by IBM and later became an industry standard. It’s used not only in desktop computer drives but also servers, something that has dramatically increased the potential of the Internet.
According to judges for the award:
Parkin’s innovations have led to a huge expansion of data acquisition and storage capacities, which in turn have underpinned the evolution of large data centres and cloud services, social networks, music and film distribution online. We can now stream movies, use social media and search information on the internet because all that information is stored in magnetic disk drives in the cloud. The information is stored in disk drives, because it is a cost-efficient means of storing data thanks to the spintronic device… Our contemporary online world is largely possible because of these atomically-thin magnetic structures.