While digging into the history of DoubleSpace and DriveSpace, I came across a handy article about the rocky relationship between Stac Electronics and Microsoft. Only I was distracted by the bold claim (certainly claimed in very bold letters) that a 40 MB drive cost $1,200 in 1989. Now, I don’t have a good sense of what cost how much in the US of A in 1989, but that just did not sound right.
Sure enough, a PC Magazine article about mail-order hard disks published in the June 1989 issue showed that in 1989, a 40 MB hard disk that cost more than $500 was an outlier, and finding one for $399 was not difficult. It also seemed odd to pick a Western Digital hard disk as representative of 1989 drive prices, because although WD was a major force in disk controllers, and did sell its own hard disks after the acquisition of Tandon’s drive division, the clear market leader at the time was Seagate. Other common mass-market drive makers were MiniScribe, Priam, or Micropolis… but not Western Digital.
So where did the outrageous $1,200 price came from? For a moment I thought perhaps that was adjusting 1989 dollars for inflation, but even in 2021, $500 (not a great price for a 40 MB drive) in 1989 dollars would be the equivalent of $1,100, not $1,200, and the article is several years old. So it’s probably something else…
Luckily, original Tedium article links to the source of the pricing information. Unluckily, that site only returns Error 500. Okay, Wayback Machine to the rescue. And there it is, “March 1989, Western Digital 40 MB, $1,199.00”, with no hint it’s an inflation-adjusted figure. But that just makes no sense! It’s far too much.
And looking at the chart, the per-megabyte price for the WD 40 MB and 20 MB drives is in fact an outlier, noticeably higher than both the following and preceding entries.
But wait—there’s another link to the real source of the pricing information. Which describes the ultimate origin thusly:
Note 56: The Technology Book 1989 (catalogue, 184 pages in colour) distributed at all Radio Shack stores in Canada in 1989. A complete copy, in excellent condition, was generously made available to me in August 1999 by Mr. John McLeod, Money Editor of the Halifax Daily News. (In The Daily News, 6 August 1999, Mr. McLeod wrote: “A colleague digging in a closet came up with a decade-old Radio Shack catalogue…”) The only date information in this catalogue is: it carried a cover date “1989” and was copyrighted in 1988. On page 178, this catalogue had two hard disk drives for sale. One priced at $899.00, with 20 megabytes storage capacity, for the following computers: Tandy 1000, Tandy 3000 HL, IBM PC, or IBM compatible. The other, priced at $1199.00, 40 megabytes, for Tandy 1000s/3000/4000 or IBM compatible. These Western Digital drives were sold mounted on “user-installable” cards, which plugged into the computer’s “10-inch card slot.” If memory serves, in 1989 purchasers in Nova Scotia paid a provincial sales tax of 11%, plus a federal sales tax of 7%.
Ooookay… this price was actually in Canadian dollars, not US dollars! That seems like a major goof.
Only that still doesn’t explain much. Checking the historical exchange rates, in mid-1989 it hovered around 1.15. So $1,200 Canadian would have been the equivalent of about $1,000 US dollars. That’s still far too much.
The note quoted above mentions a 11% provincial sales tax plus a federal 7% sales tax. I assume that was not included in the $1,199 list price, but that is only an assumption. Perhaps some readers of this blog would know? Even so, knocking another 20% off would still be too high.
The source note does helpfully mention that the price was not actually for a bare hard disk but rather for a drive “mounted on user installable card, which plugged into the computer’s 10-inch card slot”. In other words, a HardCard equivalent.
Western Digital indeed sold such things, and called them FileCard. Okay, so what we’re really looking for is WD FileCard 40 pricing.
After a quick search, all I can say is that the WD FileCard 40 clearly was not a popular product because there’s barely any mention of it. But I did find something. A summer 1989 typography magazine has an ad on page 61 which lists “Western Digital Filecard 40 (40mb, just plug it in)” at 549, presumably US dollars.
Now that is a price much more in line with expectations. A bare drive could be had for as little as $400, but that was without a controller, which the FileCard included. $549 for an integrated all-in-one product then seems quite reasonable.
So here’s the real mystery: If a Western Digital FileCard 40 was available in 1989 for $549 in the United States, how did Radio Shack manage to sell a product that was almost certainly the same WD FileCard 40 for (Canadian) $1,199 in Canada? Even after accounting for the exchange rate, it’s almost twice the US price. What gives?