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Computer Storage Has Impressive History

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Link-Up Digital

How good is your memory? Not as good as your laptop’s or your smartphone’s.

Sure, the brain’s pattern recognition, its ability to make connections, is still unmatched by any machine. The human brain has some 86 billion neurons, 100 trillion synapses between neurons, and 1,000 proteins at each synaptic connection, all of which overlay heredity and learning.

But when it comes to brute storage, silicon is better than carbon.

Much has been made in recent years about going paperless, but early digital computers beginning in the 1940s used paper for storage, specifically punch cards and punch tape, according to Syd Bolton, who runs the Personal Computer Museum in Brantford, Ontario, Canada.

Punch cards were pieces of stiff paper with holes punched into them at specific locations to digitally represent the data on them. You would feed a stack of the cards into the computer. But errors couldn’t be corrected on the fly, and storage was limited.

Commercial computers began using magnetic tape as primary storage in 1951, and because of their unlimited capacity tapes are still used for backup today. The first tape drive was introduced with the Univac I mainframe computer, according to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

Spinning magnetic disks came next. Microcomputers were available initially only with floppy disks, starting with 8-inch disks, introduced by IBM in 1968. This was followed in 1976 by the 5.25-inch floppy disk, and by the early 1980s this was standard in desktop PCs. It in turn was replaced by the 3.5-inch floppy disk, encased in a protective hard plastic shell. This was introduced by Sony in 1981 and made available on Hewlett Packard PCs in 1982, but it wasn’t until the introduction of the Apple Macintosh computer in 1984 that it started becoming mainstream.

Hard disks were actually available earlier, with IBM introducing them in 1956. Its disk drive could hold 5 megabytes of data, roughly five million characters or five books. Physically, it was the size of two refrigerators. Hard drives became the primary form of data storage for mainframe computers by the early 1960s.

It wasn’t until 1980 that hard disks were available for personal computers, with the first made by Seagate Technology. It could also store 5 megabytes of data. The first PC with an internal hard drive was the IBM PC XT, introduced in 1983, two years after IBM introduced its first PC. Its hard drive was 10 megabytes in size.

Hard drives quickly increased in capacity and still do today. The 1-terabyte hard drive was introduced by Hitachi in 2007. Its capacity is roughly one trillion characters or 1 million books. Today’s high-end desktop PCs are available with 3-terabyte hard drives.

Optical media became popular after magnetic, specifically CD-ROMs, DVD-ROMs, and Blu-ray discs. The first compact disc, which could store 550 megabytes of data, was developed by Sony and Philips in 1982 for distributing music. The first CD-ROM, for use with personal computers, was Grolier’s Electronic Encyclopedia, in 1985.

The DVD format was introduced in 1995. With its better audio and video quality, interactivity, and improved lifespan, it was adapted by the film industry for consumer releases of movies. DVDs led to the demise of the VHS tape format. Its successor is the Blu-ray optical disc, introduced in 2003.

Flash memory, used today by USB thumb drives, solid state drives, smartphones, and digital cameras, was invented by Toshiba in 1984. It’s fast like random-access memory but retains data after the machine is turned off like traditional hard disks.

It wasn’t until 2000 that USB thumb drives were introduced to the market. USB drives and writable optical discs killed off the floppy disk, and Internet streaming and USB drives are killing off the optical disc. The latest iPhones have up to 256 gigabytes of flash storage.

Miscellaneous storage technologies have been briefly available, including the Iomega Zip Disk, released in 1994. It initially allowed 100 megabytes to be stored on a cartridge the size of a 3-1/2 inch floppy disk, with later versions increasing the capacity to 2 gigabytes. Low-cost writable CDs made Zip Disks obsolete.

The latest digital storage trend is the cloud, saving or backing up data over the Internet to server farms. The data there can be made available to multiple devices and people, capacity can be quickly expanded or reduced, and in the event of a local fire, flood, or theft, data is safe. Amazon Web Services was launched in 2006 and Dropbox in 2007.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at or

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