The History of Data Storage and Backup Part Five: Wire, Tape, and Compact Disk

The History of Data Storage and Backup Part Five: Wire, Tape, and Compact Disk

April 14

Author’s note: This is part five of the StorageCraft saga: The History of Data Storage and Backup. Be sure to read part four.

In the last section we mentioned that punched cards were around since the early 1800s and became useful for everything from recording large scale numbers to computer programming. Just as punched card technology began to proliferate, magnetic storage was also gaining steam.

Before we get to the specific media, it’s important to note that there are several types that take advantage of magnetic storage. Magnetic tape, floppy disks, and hard disk drives all use different forms of magnetic storage. Interestingly enough, however, magnetic storage didn’t start out on tape, it started on wire, and it was used to record analog audio signals.

Magnetic wire recording was first patented by Oberlin Smith in 1888, though he never pursued the technology for commercial purposes. Instead, magnetic recording was taken into the commercial world by Valdemar Poulson who invented the magnetic recorder in 1898.

In wire recording, a wire is pulled across a recording head, which magnetizes points along the wire to match the intensity and polarity of the audio signal the recording head receives. Through much of the 1920s and 1930s, wire recorders struggled to gain popularity because other media for recording sound like the Dictaphone and Ediphone were much more popular. Eventually, however, magnetic wire recording did become popular between 1946 and 1954, where it was primarily marketed for office tasks like recording phone calls or taking dictation, as well as for home use, where it could be used to record family and friends or a few minutes of radio broadcast. Since steel wire was re-writeable and could hold more audio, it had a number of advantages over homemade phonograph recordings.

Magnetic wire successfully demonstrated the concept of magnetic recording, though it had certain limitations such as the fidelity of the recordings, which were fairly low compared to other recording and broadcasting standards at the time. Luckily, magnetic tape came along shortly after.

Magnetic tape uses the same principal as wire, but strips of plastic film are magnetized instead of wires. Magnetic tape storage was invented by Fritz Pleumer in 1928, but was too expensive and complex to compete with wire recording until the late 1940s, although tape recording technology tended to produce much more quality recordings.

Of course, audio was just the beginning. In 1951, magnetic tape was used to record computer data for the very first time on the UNIVAC I computer, which was used for yet another US census. Initially, magnetic tape data storage used large, ten-inch reel to reel tapes composed of thin metal strips of nickel-plated phosphor bronze. This method of data storage, though appearing in various forms, was the de-facto standard for large computer systems through the late 1980s.

Even today, tape cartridges are used for backup and archival purposes by companies with all different sizes of computing environments. From here, the basic technology remained the same, though the sizes of tape reels shrank and were eventually housed within a single plastic enclosure instead of on two separate reels. You’re likely quite familiar with these tapes and their uses for everything from audio recordings to tape-based backups.

Though tapes are still around today, other storage developments in the 1960s gave businesses, and for the first time, consumers, more options for storing information. The first 8 inch floppy disk was developed by IBM in the late 1960s and became commercially available in 1971. Soon, floppy disks were major competition for tape. Floppy disks are quite similar to the plastic strips found in magnetic tapes, though they’re recordable tape is round and capable of being randomly accessed as opposed to being accessed linearly. Floppy disks are inserted into a disk drive capable of both reading and magnetically writing data contained on the metal-coated plastic disk inside the external enclosure of the floppy disk.

Big improvements for floppy disk technology came from names like IBM and Memorex who decreased the sizes of floppy disks, steadily shrinking them to only 3.5 inches, much smaller than the original 8 inch floppies. Floppy disks steadily became the standard for housing everything from personal data to computer programs and more. Their rein lasted about twenty years before a faster storage method with more capacity came along.

Compact disks took over as the standard data storage method after writeable CD-Rs (compact discs-recordable) were developed in 1990. CD recorders didn’t become commercially viable for a few years after they were invented (the first CD recorder under $1000 wasn’t developed until 1995), though the technology blossomed quickly. Recordable and re-writeable CDs boasted not only bigger capacities than floppy disks, but much higher read and write speeds. It wasn’t long before floppy disks became more of a novelty than a viable storage media and the rein of compact disks began.

As you know, CDs are a popular, easy, and inexpensive way to store data. But as you may have noticed, physical media on disks is starting to disappear. In fact, many newer computer models don’t even have an optical media drive. Like tape, CDs are still around today, but exist alongside a few other forms of storage that are working towards putting tapes and CDs down for good.

We’ll explore some of these other technologies in the History of Data Storage and Backup Part Six: Hard Disks and Flash Memory.

Photo credit: Mary Wichary via Wikimedia Commons