How Much Is One Million?

While watching the trailer for the upcoming film, Paper Clips, I was reminded of an experiment I performed back in high school. Mind you, my experiment didn’t have as much meaning or purpose as the project documented in the trailer, but it does illustrate yet another dimension of my geek personality.

We hear the term “million” thrown about constantly in our society, whether in relation to movie star salaries, box office grosses, corporate profits, corporate losses, television game shows, or potential lottery jackpots. In the computer industry, we talk about millions as if they’re nothing. Case in point: a 3½ inch floppy disk has 1.44MB (or approximately 1,509,949 bytes) of storage, yet floppy disks have all but been abandoned, simply because they don’t hold enough information. For example, my 5 megapixel (2,560 x 1,920 = 4,915,200 total pixels) Nikon Coolpix 5700 digital camera stores a full resolution image at “normal” JPEG compression in approximately 1MB of space, making floppy disks woefully inadequate for storing any more than a single photo.

Now, when I was back in high school, 1MB was still considered a lot of space. But how much is one million (ignoring the fact that 1MB is really 1,024 bytes x 1,024 bytes, or 1,048,576 total bytes)? I needed a way to truly appreciate the size and scope of this number, so I came up with my own experiment. What if I took my Casio calculator, entered 0 + + 1, and pressed the equals key one million times (which has the effect of adding 1 each time the key is pressed)? How long would that take? Would the equals key fail before I pressed it one million times? Would the battery last that long? I had to find out.

So, I entered the formula on a Monday morning before school started, placed the calculator on the top corner of my desk, and began pressing the equals key. It’s amazing to me how the human body can adapt to such unique scenarios, because it wasn’t very long into the first day that my hand almost instinctively began “twitching” up and down in an almost nervous woodpecker-like motion. I found that I could average approximately 10,000 presses per class, and I could do this with one hand while listening or writing with the other.

While walking between classes, I perfected a technique that allowed me to lightly grip the sides of the calculator with my thumb and ring fingers and “bounce” the equals key off of my index finger, all the time maintaining my arm in a normal walking position. It wasn’t long before teachers would ask what I was doing or check on my daily progress when I came to class. I’d even continue the experiment during lunch. And when I left school in the afternoon, I stored the number in memory and kept the calculator in my locker.

Let me tell you…one million is a lot. It ended up taking me about 2½ weeks of constant pressing to reach one million. There were days where I could do more than 10,000 during a class, and there were days when gym class would prevent progress for an entire hour. I confined my experiment to school days, so nothing was done over the weekend. Now, imagine paying someone $1,000,000 using a similar process. You would have to hand over one dollar bills at the rate of approximately 3 per second over the course of 2 to 2½ weeks! What if each press of the equals key enabled your digital camera to write one byte of information to its storage media? It would take the same amount of time to store one photo! Insane!

Of course, today, one million isn’t much at all. You probably can’t even retire on $1,000,000. And 1MB of storage is almost laughable. The new cool number is one billion (yes, make sure you hold your pinky finger to the corner of your mouth when you say it). With so many billionaires cropping up and multi-gigabyte computer storage at low prices, perhaps I need to re-run my experiment with one billion as the goal. But then, unless I can increase the speed of my finger or dedicate more time to my experiment, it would take me a little over 51 years to finish! Wow!