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Computer Storage: A Brief History

Computer storage is something we almost take for granted nowadays. It is standard to be able to store films, movies and pictures with ease on a computer and have room for games too. All of that you can access within moments, especially now thanks to the rise of solid state storage. It wasn’t always this luxurious though, and it is quite interesting to take a look back at the history of computer storage and see how it all began.

In the past, computers were pretty much entirely mechanical. Between 1920 and 1950, the main method to store data was as holes punched into strips of paper (suitably known as punch cards). Punch cards weren’t only used for computer data storage, though. Throughout the 19th century they were used for controlling textile looms and for operating fairground organs as the dawn of the new century came around. Each punch card had 80 columns, allowing for a total of 70 bytes of information to be stored in total. To put this into context, over ten million punch cards could store the same amount of data as a CD-ROM.

Magnetic tape became the next form of storage in the 1950s. They were originally made of nickel plated copper, but IBM popularised the use of ferromagnetic coated plastic tape. Tape storage is still not totally obsolete due to its low cost and reliability and is primarily used as a high capacity medium for backups and archives. Magnetic drums were the basis of modern hard disk drives. Spinning at speeds of up to 12500 revolutions per minute, the magnetic drum made use of multiple stationary heads that read the data as it came round on a rotating cylinder. Magnetic core memory also came about in the 1950s, which brought the ability to retrieve data randomly. Up until that point, punch cards, tape and the magnetic drum could only access memory sequentially.

In 1956, IBM invented the hard disk with a size of 5 MB. At the time this was brilliant, but now it would only be able to store about a single track of music. The technology rapidly progressed and in 1971 the floppy disk was invented by a man called Alan Shugart who worked at IBM. The floppy disk was made out of thin and flexible magnetic storage. Modern computers are no longer fitted with floppy disk drives, but at the time it was revolutionary for transporting data between computers. Although they were not able to store as much data as hard disks, they were cheaper and smaller.

Flash cards and memory sticks superseded the floppy disk for transporting data and they are still being produced to this day. CD-ROMs have been around since 1980, although the DVD-ROM (and now the Blu-ray disc) is preferred due to its increased storage abilities. Currently, hard disk drives continue to grow in storage and drop in price, but solid state drives are slowly becoming the preferred storage drives due to their quick access times. Data storage is ever changing and who knows where it will go next?


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