Science & Tech

How data storage evolved from a few bytes in a room to GBs in your pocket

Evolution of storage from before computers to smartphones

Storage is cheap, so why not get more of it? That’s an axiom the tech world lives by: high-end phones now have more storage space than most people would ever need, laptops with terabyte-plus capacities are common, and desktop users have so much storage, they don’t ever have to worry about running out of space.

But it wasn’t always so - data storage tech has undergone a massive revolution since the earliest days of computing. Join us as we take a stroll down this incredible journey.

The BC (Before Computers, if you’ll pardon the pun) Era

Bouchon loom Musée des arts et métiers - Wikimedia Commons

Would you believe that the earliest form of data storage predates the development of computers? Sounds unlikely, but it’s true: In the eighteenth century, Basile Bouchon came up with a way to ‘program’ looms using loops of perforated paper. Bouchon’s assistant, Jean Baptiste Falcon, improved upon this, and by the early nineteenth century, Joseph Jacquard was using perforated cards for his highly automated looms.

Audio recording had a role to play

Mélotrope The Pianola Institute

Joseph Jacquard’s punch cards might seem antiquated, but back in the nineteenth century, they were the cutting-edge of tech. In 1881, Jules Carpentier unveiled the Mélographe Répétiteur, a machine which recorded musical notes on rolls of paper; along with the Mélotrope, a hand-cranked harmonium which could play these back (ponder on this the next time you complain about the quality of MP3 files).

The dawn of computing

Hollerith punched card tabulator Adam Schuster - Wikimedia Commons

But it was Herman Hollerith who changed things with his Tabulating Machines. These precursors of computers were used for the 1890 Census in the United States - Census officers would punch holes to record data, which was later ‘tabulated’ using electro-mechanical readers. Hollerith’s invention was significant in itself, but it’s also worth pointing out that his Tabulating Machine Company later merged with three other companies, giving birth to the behemoth known as IBM!

Over the next few decades, punch cards started becoming common as automation grew - payroll and logistics to research departments and armament production, you’d find punch-card-fed machines everywhere.

(Punch card machines have also been used for electoral purposes. The controversies surrounding the US Presidential Elections of 2000 involved the punch card voting machines used at that time.)

Magnetic storage wasn’t far behind

magnetic-drum Gregg Tavares

Punch cards reigned supreme till around the early 1960s, when magnetic storage started becoming commercially viable. But as with punch cards (and pretty much every piece of modern tech), the foundations of magnetic storage lay back in the nineteenth century.

In 1877, all-round-genius Thomas Edison demonstrated his audio recording invention (music seems to have a lot to do with this story), the phonograph. While this used metal foil with grooves (later improved by, amongst others, Alexander Graham Bell and Emile Berliner), inventor Oberlin Smith improved upon this by using thread impregnated with metal, which he proposed could be used to record audio as well. Valdemar Poulsen got the next breakthrough in magnetic recording tech - his Telegraphone could record speech onto a magnetic cylinder. Eventually, years of successive improvements culminated in the development of magnetic tape by Fritz Pfleumer in 1928.

Just four year later, Gustav Tauschek came up with the magnetic drum, which could store 500,000 bits of data on a drum coated with a ferromagnetic material - the magnetic polarity would be flipped by a recorder (to read as 0 or 1), and later, this could be read back.  

Magnetic data storage goes mainstream

The UNIVAC 1 and its tape drives Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Early computers, which were pretty much successors of tabulating machines, all used punch cards or loops of paper tape. But there was one problem - punch cards held not more than 80 bits of information (higher capacity cards came along eventually, but there wasn’t much improvement).

The solution, then, was to use magnetic storage. In 1949, the University of Manchester’s Mark 1 entered operation - the first computer to use magnetic storage (although punch cards were still used to enter data).

Over the years, work on magnetic storage intensified, and by 1950, magnetic tech was on its way up - The UNIVAC 1, the first computer sold commercially in the US, used UNISERVO magnetic tapes for entering and recording data. And that was it for punch cards - They remained in use for feeding in programs, but were all but dead by the 1970s, surviving only thanks to legacy systems.

Magnetic tapes are still used, especially for archival and off-site storage, because of their strengths - they’re fast, sturdy, and inexpensive.

Hard disks change the game

Seagate's ST-506 with the top cover removed Wikimedia Commons - Public Domain

Hard disks aren’t new tech and have been around since 1956, when IBM’s RAMAC computer arrived on the scene. Debuting alongside this, was the IBM 350 storage unit, which took up an entire room and used rotating disks to store 3.75MB data. You couldn’t buy the storage unit separately - it was leased alongside the RAMAC (the entire system cost $3200 a month, which comes to around $30,000 in 2017 terms). A few years later, IBM’s 1311 (with a capacity of 2.6MB) went on sale - at $115,500 (over a million US dollars at  today’s prices) - for users of the IBM 7000 series computers. What makes the 1311 special wasn’t just its pioneering tech, but also the fact that up to 10 separate units could be connected at the same time.

Another landmark event occured in 1961: The debut of what’s probably the first third-party disk, the Memorex 630, which offered computer users an alternative to IBM’s own storage units. But it was in 1980 that the modern hard drive landed - Seagate’s ST-506 was the first to use the 5.25 inch size, a standard that’s still in use.

Over time, prices kept dropping, while capacities soared. In 1983, IBM launched the PC XT, an upgraded version of its legendary PC. The XT came with a 10MB hard drive, but by the mid-1990s (the Intel Pentium era), 540MB drives were standard.

Floppy disks make an entry

Three generations of floppy disks Phys.Org

By the 1970s, it was clear hard disks were here to stay. But portable storage was changing as well. IBM showed off the first 8in diskette (with an 80KB  capacity) in 1967, with Memorex releasing its 175KB version (the first to be sold commercially) in 1971. By the time the IBM PC rolled around in 1981, these were down to 5.25 inches in size, and could hold 360KB. Capacity soon grew to 640kb, and you’d find floppies everywhere - Apple to Commodore, everyone used these. And in 1981, Sony created the 3.5 inch diskette, which eventually became the industry standard.

Optical storage arrives

Sony CDP-101 - the world's first CD (audio) player Pure Energy

But diskettes had one problem - They couldn’t hold much data. And with computers becoming more powerful with every passing day, the world needed something else. Case in point: Windows 95, which was also sold on 1.44MB floppies (and CD-ROMs as well),  

though having to sit through 21 floppies worth of installation time was enough to reduce even the toughest geek to tears!

Optical storage had been around since 1978 when the Laserdisc was released, but the tech itself dates back to 1884, when Alexander Graham Bell (he’s back, folks!), Chichester Bell, and Charles Sumner Tainter used a beam of light to record sound on a glass disc.

The development of the Compact Disc - commercial sales began in 1982 -  eventually led to development of the CD-ROM, which could hold over 500MB data, in the mid 1980s, although commercial usage really kicked off in the early 1990s. This journey continued, and today’s most popular optical format the DVD, can hold 9.4GB, making it great for archival purposes.

Fast, quiet, and convenient - the SSD revolutionises laptop computing


SSDs are available in a variety of interfaces and form factors Samsung

Old-school hard disks, the ones using rotating magnetic ‘platters’, are still around as they strike a great balance between speed, capacity, and cost. But anyone looking for the latest in performance uses Solid State Drives (SSD). Commonly found in laptops, and sometimes used to store the OS and applications on desktops and servers, SSDs are fast, rugged (hard disks are vulnerable to falls and high-G impacts), and compact (no big platters of magnetised metal).

But while SSDs are very much current-gen tech, their genesis can be traced back to the development of Magnetic Core Memory (an early form of RAM) and Charged Capacitor Read Only Storage (used to store low-level code) from the 1950s. Of course, there’s over half a century worth of development in there!

Floppies might be dead but portable magnetic storage lives on

SanDisk's 512GB memory card SanDisk

SSDs and Hard Disks all very nice, and cloud storage is transforming how we work, but we still (and will always) need portable storage. Unfortunately, floppy disks were delicate and couldn’t hold much data. That’s why the industry tried out other portable storage formats - Zip Drives, SuperDisks, and Mini Discs (a hybrid, magneto-optical tech) achieved limited popularity but with prices of optical storage dropping, it took over. But portable magnetic storage isn’t dead. On the contrary, it’s thriving: USB sticks and microSD cards aren’t going anywhere anytime soon (the largest microSD card holds 512GB).

The internal storage on your phones uses tech similar to that found in SSDs (NAND Flash memory)

Tomorrow’s storage tech

Intel's Optane reresents the cutting-edge of storage tech

Faster, larger, and more reliable drives come out every year, while the cost keeps dropping. Today’s largest SSD tops out at 100TB (arriving at retailers soon), and while these will cost a lot more than hard disks, enterprise users will still find use for them!

But for an idea into what storage tech of the future looks like, check out IBM and Micron’s 3D XPoint tech. Sold under Optane and QuantX brands, this brings together the speeds of RAM with the non-volatile nature and lower cost of SSDs. The tech’s still new and is mostly used by high-end data centers and users looking for a ‘system accelerator’, but some expect it to eventually replace SSDs.

Looking further into the future, we could one day see data being stored on DNA or on crystalline substances using holographic tech. Which technologies eventually win the format wars might be up for conjecture, but what’s certain is that data storage will become faster and cheaper with every new generation!

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