The History of Data Storage and Backup Part One: The Writing on the Wall

The History of Data Storage and Backup Part One: The Writing on the Wall

December 3

This article is part one of the StorageCraft saga: The History of Data Storage and Backup.


“DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software ever created.”

Bill Gates, The Road Ahead.

Data storage is a natural and necessary process that has been occurring in the DNA or RNA of all living creatures since the beginning of life itself.

Put most simply, data is information and for our purpose, information is the unit of measurement by which we understand and analyze our world. These units may be numbers, words, images—even genetic material.

Data storage devices, then, are devices on which we record that information. Recording can be done with anything from a pad and pen to a phonograph recorder to electromagnetic energy on magnetic tape and optical disks. Of course, humans are themselves data storage devices and have stored and transferred data long before primitive beings discovered tools.

Each human has information stored in his or her very own genetic hardrive: DNA, which is possibly the first medium of data storage. DNA copies itself through a biological process that occurs in all living organisms called DNA replication, which is really just the backup of certain pieces of genetic data that are transferred to offspring through biological reproduction: the first data transfer, and the method by which life is continued through time.

Science has debunked the idea that we use current technology to recover genetic material from DNA stored inside ancient sources like in the popular film Jurassic Park, but over time, humans have definitely become more adept at storing and recovering other kinds of data.

As our early human ancestors evolved, so did their understanding of technology, a fact that is manifested in their use of simple tools. As their brains evolved, they began to understand new types of information, which amplified their need to record it.

In truth, the first data recorded by humans were probably the images they saw every day, images that were recorded in the memory banks of their brains. In order to access this information, they simply had to remember it. Sadly, there’s no cerebral recovery process (that we know of), so when a brain failed and the data was forgotten, it was lost forever. In time, however, they learned to draw and began reproducing images of things like horses and buffalo on cave walls, the first media on which early people recorded information for later use—in other words, the very first data backup.

With this most basic form of backup and recovery mastered, primitive humans continued to evolve and began to understand quantities. How many people are here? How many eyes do I have? Research suggests that humans have been counting for at least 50,000 years, if not more. The first “computers” (in other words, anything that assists with calculations) were probably their fingers and toes. It’s most likely that primitive humans recorded tallies of numbers on cave walls first, much the way you might keep a tally on your white board, but evidence also shows that they used tools to record numbers as well.

The earliest recordings of quantity were discovered in the form of simple tallies carved into bone or wood—a device known as a tally stick. Primitive humans notched these bones to record numbers as they counted, making the tally stick another of the very first mediums for data backup. The earliest known tally stick was made from a baboon bone and has been dated from between 18,000 and 20,000 b.c.e. Known as the Ishango bone, scientists suspect it was used to perform basic mathematical operations in addition to regular counting.

So what does this have to do with data backup and recovery?

A tally is simply the recording of a pattern, preserving it to be recalled when necessary. The ability for animals and humans to recognize patterns (to recover backed up information, as it were) is precisely what allows them to learn and therefore survive.

If A happens (say you killed a poisonous frog), then B will happen (you ate it because you’re starving), leading to C (you got extremely sick). A >> B >> C. it’s starting to sound a lot like the alphabet or a numerical counting system, or perhaps a computer program.

But why would our early ancestors need to remember they saw a few horses or buffalo? And how much could a few notches on a bone really help them remember? What do we do with these patterns and programs?

One idea is that the need to record things and pass them along is inherent in our nature. Much the way a bird knows to build a nest or to fly south for the winter, animals and humans have knowledge that exists prior to learning: their instincts, which are defined as inherent inclinations living organisms have toward particular behaviors.  As humans evolved, they developed instinctual behaviors that mimicked their own DNA: recording information to preserve it and pass it on.

Another theory suggests that as the human cerebral cortex (the part of the brain responsible for thought, language, and consciousness) developed, so did our ability to mentally create and process information until we developed early forms of communication, which ultimately led to the need to share the information in the form of speech and drawings. While researchers are uncertain why the first cave drawings were made, some theories suggest they were part of religious ceremonies, or even instructed other primitive humans which animals were edible ( leading to D: you drew the animals you could eat so your friends don’t get poisoned).

Whatever the cause, this inclination to record and pass on information set into motion a long relationship with information storage, processing, and protection that continues to grow and expand as we speak.

We know that as our primitive ancestors became more intelligent and the need for information storage grew, so did their understanding of technology starting with the discovery of tools. The need to share, store, recover, and utilize information in ever-growing quantities is the reason computer technology exists in its present form. Language, thought, and various expressions of that information had to be recorded in order to be shared, and kept for later generations, so that they too could learn from the patterns their ancestors left them.  The mutually influential bond of technology on humans and vice versa forms a sort braided relationship like the two nucleobase strands of a double helix as they continue to evolve together through time.

We continue our look at the harmonious evolutions of humanity, technology, data storage, backup, and recovery in History of Data Storage and Backup Part Two: Tablets, Patterns, and Paper