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The history of computer data storage, in pictures

Nowadays we are used to having hundreds of gigabytes of storage capacity in our computers. Even tiny MP3 players and other handheld devices usually have several gigabytes of storage. This was pure science fiction only a few decades ago. For example, the first hard disk drive to have gigabyte capacity was as big as a refrigerator, and that was in 1980. Not so long ago!

Pingdom stores a lot of monitoring data every single day, and considering how much we take today’s storage capacity for granted, it’s interesting to look back and get things in perspective. Here is a look back at some interesting storage devices from the early computer era.

The Selectron tube

The Selectron tube had a capacity of 256 to 4096 bits (32 to 512 bytes). The 4096-bit Selectron was 10 inches long and 3 inches wide. Originally developed in 1946, the memory storage device proved expensive and suffered from production problems, so it never became a success.

Selectron tube
Above: The 1024-bit Selectron.

Punch cards

Early computers often used punch cards for input both of programs and data. Punch cards were in common use until the mid-1970s. It should be noted that the use of punch cards predates computers. They were used as early as 1725 in the textile industry (for controlling mechanized textile looms).

Punch card Fortran program
Above: Card from a Fortran program: Z(1) = Y + W(1)

Punch card reader and punch card writer
Above left: Punch card reader. Above right: Punch card writer.

Punched tape

Same as with punch cards, punched tape was originally pioneered by the textile industry for use with mechanized looms. For computers, punch tape could be used for data input but also as a medium to output data. Each row on the tape represented one character.

Punch tape
Above: 8-level punch tape (8 holes per row).

Magnetic drum memory

Invented all the way back in 1932 (in Austria), it was widely used in the 1950s and 60s as the main working memory of computers. In the mid-1950s, magnetic drum memory had a capacity of around 10 kB.

Magnetic drum memory
Above left: The magnetic Drum Memory of the UNIVAC computer. Above right: A 16-inch-long drum from the IBM 650 computer. It had 40 tracks, 10 kB of storage space, and spun at 12,500 revolutions per minute.

The hard disk drive

The first hard disk drive was the IBM Model 350 Disk File that came with the IBM 305 RAMAC computer in 1956. It had 50 24-inch discs with a total storage capacity of 5 million characters (just under 5 MB).

IBM Model 350, the first hard disk drive
Above: IBM Model 350, the first-ever hard disk drive.

The first hard drive to have more than 1 GB in capacity was the IBM 3380 in 1980 (it could store 2.52 GB). It was the size of a refrigerator, weighed 550 pounds (250 kg), and the price when it was introduced ranged from $81,000 to $142,400.

Really big hard disk drives
Above left: A 250 MB hard disk drive from 1979. Above right: The IBM 3380 from 1980, the first gigabyte-capacity hard disk drive.

The Laserdisc

We mention it here mainly because it was the precursor to the CD-ROM and other optical storage solutions. It was mainly used for movies. The first commercially available laserdisc system was available on the market late in 1978 (then called Laser Videodisc and the more funkily branded DiscoVision) and were 11.81 inches (30 cm) in diameter. The discs could have up to 60 minutes of audio/video on each side. The first laserdiscs had entirely analog content. The basic technology behind laserdiscs was invented all the way back in 1958.

Laserdiscs
Above left: A Laserdisc next to a regular DVD. Above right: Another Laserdisc.

The floppy disc

The diskette, or floppy disk (named so because they were flexible), was invented by IBM and in common use from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s. The first floppy disks were 8 inches, and later in came 5.25 and 3.5-inch formats. The first floppy disk, introduced in 1971, had a capacity of 79.7 kB, and was read-only. A read-write version came a year later.

Old floppy disks
Above left: An 8-inch floppy and floppy drive next to a regular 3.5-inch floppy disk. Above right: The convenience of easily removable storage media.

Magnetic tape

Magnetic tape was first used for data storage in 1951. The tape device was called UNISERVO and was the main I/O device on the UNIVAC I computer. The effective transfer rate for the UNISERVO was about 7,200 characters per second. The tapes were metal and 1200 feet long (365 meters) and therefore very heavy.

Old tape drives for OLD computers
Above left: The row of tape drives for the UNIVAC I computer. Above right: The IBM 3410 Magnetic Tape Subsystem, introduced in 1971.

And of course, we can’t mention magnetic tape without also mentioning the standard compact cassette, which was a popular way of data storage for personal computers in the late 70s and 80s. Typical data rates for compact cassettes were 2,000 bit/s. You could store about 660 kB per side on a 90-minute tape.

Compact cassette and Commodore Datasette.
Above left: The standard compact cassette. Above right: The Commodore Datassette is sure to bring up fond memories for people who grew up in the 80s.

There are so many interesting pictures from “the good old days” when you look around on the web. These were some of the best we could find, and we hope you liked them.

Picture sources:

The Selectron. The punch card. The punch card reader and writer. Punched tape 1 and 2. UNIVAC magnetic drum. IBM 650 computer magnetic drum. The IBM Model 350 Disk File. 250 MB hard drisk drive from 1979. The IBM 3380. Laserdisc vs DVD. Held Laserdisc. 8-inch floppy drive. 8-inch floppy in use. UNISERVO and UNIVAC I. The IBM 3410. The compact cassette. The Datassette.

And as always, Wikipedia was a great source for checking out the actual facts.

EDIT: Removed the comment about the Commodore Datassette sound, since it was a factual error: Removed this: “(For those who weren’t there, you could hear the sound of the data being read as a high-pitched, screechy sound while you were loading your programs.)”



106 comments
Marsa
Marsa

Can anyone tell me what the acronym TD stands for in TD machines, having to do with the old paper-tape transmission of computer information back in the early 1970s. Thanks.

oliviajmak
oliviajmak

That selectron device looks like a torture device! It is great to see a visual of how far storage technologies have come. Now, it is all about storage virtualization, which in my opinion, is the by far the best of all the methods. 

kate mate
kate mate

Share this great article very much. Please continue this blog, because it is my favorite of my blog readers to one, thank you.

hydromax30
hydromax30

time go like fly,10 years past,we almost forget those unit.

FattyLiver
FattyLiver

Old history,I am computer fans.we must remember.

Taran
Taran

Thanks for sharing such nice info by pictures, great info for me.I liked this post.

marc11
marc11

It was used as random access memory in early computers. I think the Jargon file has an anecdote about the first programmer who optimized his code to the spin rate of the drum so that the next instruction would be read just-in-time, without delay (a whole revolution of the drum, which was a considerable amount of time then). On the Commodore 64 Datasette many confuse the sound produced through the sound chip when loading some programs using a tape turbo (data compression program to reduce the time to load the main program), which some commercial game compilations used. Other home computer casette units may have produced sound, but on the Commodore 64 it was purely an annoying cosmetic touch by the programmer of the turbo loader (together with a flashing and/or striped screen). http://www.alquilerdeyatesenibiza.com  The reason for the flashing screen was purely practical though, as most commercial tapes were recorded at such a low level (to make it difficult to just dub the tape to thwart piracy) that you had to adjust the datasette read head with a screw driver to be able to load the damn game;

rclampe
rclampe

And, by the way, the 1st computer I worked with (long before I owned one) had a large operator's console with 16 KB (yes I said KB) of memory, and card storage.  And before that I worked in an auto plant where the "Tab Room" featured a wired-board programmed IBM computer that did an amazing 6 FLOPs/sec.!!

 

Now I carry a shirt-pocket internet-able device with 64 GB, and falling behind the curve every day.

rclampe
rclampe

And, by the way, the 1st computer I worked with (long before I owned one) had a large operator's console with 16 KB (yes I said KB) of memory, and card storage.  And before that I worked in an auto plant where the "Tab Room" featured a wired-board programmed IBM computer that did an amazing 6 FLOPs/sec.!!   Now I carry a shirt-pocket internet-able device with 64 GB, and falling behind the curve every day.

rclampe
rclampe

There was also the punch-card Jacquard textile looms in the 19th century that probly inspired Hollerith.  And does anyone remember "Otsego Project", which I recall as an experimental large scale drum storage machine by old AT&T.

rclampe
rclampe

There was also the punch-card Jacquard textile looms in the 19th century that probly inspired Hollerith.  And does anyone remember "Otsego Project", which I recall as an experimental large scale drum storage machine by old AT&T.

kitty112233
kitty112233

That's MY H|W done then!!!! Thank-You very much for creating this website!!!!!

kitty112233
kitty112233

That's MY H|W done then!!!! Thank-You very much for creating this website!!!!!

Frank
Frank

I remember my first program, on Hollerith cards. My first computer had 64 MB of memory. I thought I was living in the fast lane. Today, life really is fast and getting faster. My children know more about computers than most graduates did when I finished. Don't ask when, I won't tell.

welson
welson

Thanks to these Computer architectures who continued this cycle of memory devices improvement and now a days don't having any problem while carrying 500Gb hard disk in our pocket.

Tom Shipp
Tom Shipp

I used everyone of these in my career starting in the early 1960's.

Nick
Nick

I had that exact same Commodore cassette player for my Vic 20, you just brought back memories of an innocent childhood 25 years ago. Cheers.

Sky
Sky

Interesting. First, I could never figure out why anyone would want to spend so much money to build such a big harddisk with only 5MB of space! Though thanks to IBM and all the genius that keep working on this, and we get to enjoy our small size laptop with Gigabytes of spaces. =)

Pink Laptops
Pink Laptops

It really is amazing to see how fast technology develops. I remember years ago when a 64Mb HDD was the latest tech. Now you can get over 1Tb. Simply incredible.

Fajas
Fajas

Oh boy ., I am old. I remember punch cards while in college.

mühendis
mühendis

Way to make me feel old, guys. I actually used [i.e. programmed with] both punch cards and paper tape. It felt high tech at the time.

Elaine
Elaine

Hey, no one has mentioned the other storage medium that was widely used by consumers beginning around 1900 -- Piano rolls. These were similar to punched tape, but were large paper rolls that each contained a tune. The mechanism in the piano used air pressure through the holes in the paper that caused the wires inside to be struck by the felt hammers to produce the tune.

psihometrika
psihometrika

actually on some systems it would play out loud when loading a cassette, most systems used the output of the cassette player which disabled the internal speaker, i had a ti/99 that would play the cassette’s while loading them.

immodedoona
immodedoona

Hi all! As a fresh royal.pingdom.com user i just want to say hello to everyone else who uses this site :D

Outsider
Outsider

Commodore released a new version of the casette unit, called Load-It! if I recall correctly, with a knob to adjust the head (and a led meter showing the level of signal), instead of just hole for a screw driver because of the unreliability of loading non-pirated software. I never had a Load-It Datasette, so loading games was a pain in the backside.

Outsider
Outsider

I recall that drum memory was also used for primary data storage (RAM). It was used as random access memory in early computers. I think the Jargon file has an anecdote about the first programmer who optimized his code to the spin rate of the drum so that the next instruction would be read just-in-time, without delay (a whole revolution of the drum, which was a considerable amount of time then). On the Commodore 64 Datasette many confuse the sound produced through the sound chip when loading some programs using a tape turbo (data compression program to reduce the time to load the main program), which some commercial game compilations used. Other home computer casette units may have produced sound, but on the Commodore 64 it was purely an annoying cosmetic touch by the programmer of the turbo loader (together with a flashing and/or striped screen). The reason for the flashing screen was purely practical though, as most commercial tapes were recorded at such a low level (to make it difficult to just dub the tape to thwart piracy) that you had to adjust the datasette read head with a screw driver to be able to load the damn game; if the screen stopped flashing while loading you knew you had to adjust the head and try again.

Wm Franklin
Wm Franklin

Other forms of storage which could be added: The 12" floppy disk - 1Mb, hard-shell case, used on late-60s, early 70 IBM machines, among them System 360, Model 44 DECtape - used in a number of DEC (Digital Equipment Corp. machines in the PDP series. This was a 1" reel, about 3-4" in diamter, held 350 Kb (if I remember correctly), and could be read/written in either direction. Its main claim to fame was that you could unspool some tape, wad it up in your hand, straighten it out (leaving folds & wrinkles), respool it, and read it without errors. Sort of like a tape-era USB key. The IBM 2311 (7 platter) & 2314 (14 platter) removable disk pack with completely unshielded platters, about 14" in diameter. Used in IBM System/360 and /370 mainframes as primary storage.

Cambronze
Cambronze

A couple of interesting thoughts partially relating to memory and older computer systems. DO NOT RUN with a box of punch cards. If I was in a hurry to get my time on the computer, I always ended up tripping and spilling the lot. They then needed to be reordered and my slot was lost. Sound from a C64 only when listening on an ordinary cassette player OR when correctly set, typed and spaced a friend had silent night on a dot matrix printer. I still have Microsoft Pascal Compiler manual and disks in original plastic box. My first introduction to Basic programing was on the states first mainframe, accidentally created an infinite loop. Put it out of commission for about an hour, while we tried to remove it. Never saw bureaucrats move so fast!

blmartech
blmartech

actually on some systems it would play out loud when loading a cassette, most systems used the output of the cassette player which disabled the internal speaker, i had a ti/99 that would play the cassette's while loading them.

Zenith
Zenith

That was a blast from the past, I enjoyed the read and browse through the images.

Wm Franklin
Wm Franklin

Great information, but one error, and one omission: The first floppy disk was the IBM 2315, which was 12" across, in a hard plastic case, and held 1 Mb. It was the main disk drive on the IBM 360, Model 44, which I programmed in college. You omitted the DECtape, which was about 3" diameter, has a 2" spindle (center hole), and was 1" wide. The DECtape's claim to fame was it was almost error-proof. You could unroll a bunch of DECtape; wad, crinkle, & fold it up in your hand; and it could then be read and written without errors. The DECtape was used on Digital Equipment's PDP-series of mainframes and minicomputers (PDP-8,10,11 that I know of). But great post!

Bottlerocket
Bottlerocket

Way to make me feel old, guys. I actually used [i.e. programmed with] both punch cards and paper tape. It felt high tech at the time. We would write batch programs using IBC job control language, and then wait for the programs to run. It seemed high tech at the time, now it seems so old. I am very glad you are keeping a historical record of computing.

Jacob
Jacob

i got what i actually wanted from this website thank you

Perri Kenneth
Perri Kenneth

I started selling the 8" and 10" SMD Drives. Remember CDC,Fujitsu. Emulex corp was one of the first to create the 3rd party disk market selling up against Dec. We made emulation controllers that put third party disk and tape products on the manufacturers cpu. This was back in the early eighties. EMC and Netapp were not even a dream yet. EMC made 4 meg add on memory cards. They could not even spell storage. The days of the big iron wars. We were selling the stuff for about $300.00 per meg.

Robert
Robert

Re: EDIT: Removed the comment about the Commodore Datassette sound, since it was a factual error: Removed this: “(For those who weren’t there, you could hear the sound of the data being read as a high-pitched, screechy sound while you were loading your programs.)” This is actually technically correct, at least for a short period of time... Before the Commodore branded tape drive came out, they sold an adapter for use with an ordinary cassette tape recorder. It was a wire that plugged into the Vic20 or C64 motherboard and then into the mic input of the recorder. You then pushed play and record to start the tape drive and then ran the "save" command. It was a REAL pain because you had to get the record volume just right. While it was recording you could hear the squeals and hisses. The dedicated tape drive was really an improvement-- especially because of the counter. With that you could put more than one program on a cassette tape. Yes.. I had both, the cable and the Commodore branded tape drive. That was a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

paresh
paresh

intresting improvement in technology.

Ecco
Ecco

Regarding the tape sound - You had the correct phenomenon, but the wrong computer. The secondhand Atari 800 I had as a kid used to be noisy as hell when you would load or save a tape (CLOAD or CSAVE), though it sounded more like a robotic truck horn with a chest cold.

brian
brian

interesting trip down memory lane. I have 3 old lugable computers sitting in my garage collecting dust. combined they have about the storage space of my iphone

TerryGM
TerryGM

I remember the cassette tape drive of my first computer, Radio Shack's TRS-80 Model 1 Level 2. It's hard to believe how many cassettes I used up learning that system. Later on I got a TRS-80 Model III with a 5.25" floppy disk. Of course as soon as I could I created flippies for it, to save money and double my space. The orginal was only 180KB, by making another eye hole in the floppy I could have another side to the disk. Later years I went to a school that still had some of the Model IIIs in use. One had an external hard drive, about the size of three laptops stacked on top of each other. It held a whole 5MB of data. It ammazed me at the time.

Charlie B
Charlie B

I remember seeing a product that would print programs on a laser printer that could be read by a hand-held plug-in device. The output looked similar to the optical data storage area on the back of some states drivers licenses. I don't remember what it was called but I actually did spring for one. Programs could be entered in a blazing three to five minutes instead of hours! This made getting programs for those Apple ][ computers much easier as we used to type in whole programs in BASIC right from sources such as Nibble Magazine. (http://www.nibblemagazine.net/) It was not uncommon (among nerds at least) to spend several days keying in a multi-page program that looked cool. The rest of the world just wondered what we were doing.

Janet Carroll
Janet Carroll

There were also so mini punch cards in the mid-1970s that were 2"-3" square. They didn't last long as the floppy came in about the same time.

Piyush Bakshi
Piyush Bakshi

That's a nice piece, back in 87' when I took computer classes to learn BASIC (I was in seventh grade), we were required to get a 3.5" floppy disc. I got one too though never used it and I still have it. It's an antique, Wonder what I'll get for it on eBay. :)

Chris
Chris

Hi. The relay on the Electron and BBC Microcomputers was to control the cassette motor, so that it stopped after loading or saving. It may also have controlled the volume, but only with specially-adapted cassette recorders. Hearing the data was essential! I remember getting my first 5.25" floppy drive, single-sided, 40K. It cost about £100. I also remember using the cassette relay to switch my amateur radio transceiver between transmit and receive. We used to send programs to each other by radio. Magic days!

Ivano Gutz
Ivano Gutz

May I contribute with a missing landmark in the history of magnetic tape data storage? Its the DC100 Data Cartridge, a 3.5" digital data and program mass storage unit developed to fit into thee HP9825 desk computer, launched in 1976 with a 16-bit "triple core" hybrid microprocessor – fantastic for numerical processing, interfacing and automation and years ahead of the 8-bit microcomputers from APPLE and IBM PC with 5.25" floppy disk drives. The quarter-inch-wide tape minicartridge (QIC) & drive is much smaller than the 8" floppy disk & drive from the 70ties (3.5" floppies appeared in 1981) and much faster and reliable than analog storage on cassete tape. The QIC originated an entire tape-backup industry and evolved to capacities of up to 20-Gbyte. QIC-backup dominated the scene till surpassed in capacity and speed by the hard disks in the 21st century. More about: http://www.hp9825.com/html/dc100_tape.html http://www.hp9825.com/html/hybrid_microprocessor.html http://www.answers.com/topic/minicartridge Application examples of the HP 9825 (with the DC 100) from our lab: http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0022072899001618 and http://www.teses.usp.br/teses/disponiveis/livredocencia/46/tde-29022008-142848.

Rodney
Rodney

I still have some "floppy" floppy disks (5.25 inch) & a 40 Meg disk that occupies twice the space of a modern hard disk. State of the art technology, that was!

Al Weiss
Al Weiss

Any way to send you a comment including photos? Al Weiss IBM 1959-1973

Andreas F. Geissbuehler
Andreas F. Geissbuehler

Many devices used SHIFT REGISTERS as a storage media. For example, the early display terminals ("CRTs") were in fact teletype terminals, operating at blazing speeds of 1200..9600 Bauds, connected to COM1 of mini-omputers and early PCs [*]. The display area typically had 24(/25) lines, 80 chars/line, for a total of 1960..2000+ characters (25th line: status data) which needed to be stored somehow. A shift register is like a bench, a row of chairs. Put many of these around a clock until the end of the last bench touches the begin of the first one. You now have a circle, a ring with thousands of chairs arranged around that clock. The way it works, on every chair sits either a "0" or a "1". Each time the clock ticks they all stand up, make one step to the right and sit down again. The last one on every bench now sits in first place of the next bench and... The electron beam, as it is redrawing the display advances to the same clock beat. After every 7th tick it gets to see who sits on "Bench No.1" and displays the graphic that corresponds to the 7 bits sitting on this bench at that instant. Say new data arrives, bit by bit it is entering the circle at some "Bench Nr.77". As new bits enter bench-77 the ones leaving bench-76 are lost as they step on a trap door and fall into the bit bucket. [*] The alternative was memory mapped video, a portion of the PC's RAM used as video buffer and a graphics card (CGA = IBM/PC Color Graphics Adapter), converting the RAM content into RGB video signals, sent a video monitor (a fast TV without tuner/receiver circuitry).

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  38. [...] A bit of history now, The History of Computer Data Storage in Pictures. [...]

  39. [...] eben nen Artikel über “Historic Datastorage” gelesen und klar: Bilder von Raumgroßen apperaten wo man [...]

  40. [...] povo do blog “Royal Pingdom” publicou uma matéria com uma galeria de fotos mostrando a evolução da tecnologia de armazenamento de dados nos computadores. Dos cartões e fitas de papel perfurado dos primórdios da computação, passando pelas memórias [...]

  41. [...] This computer is most famous for being the first commercial computer delivered with a hard disk drive. The hard disk drive could store a total of just under 5 MB and consisted of 50 24-inch diameter disks. The 305 RAMAC was one of the largest computers IBM ever built. (If you find ancient hard drives fascinating, check out our post about the history of computer data storage.) [...]