Everybody stores data.

We often take the devices that store our data for granted, as they have become so inexpensive and efficient.

But we’ve come a long way from the early days of computing. Take a look at 14 of the most important devices in the history of data storage.

First Item (Hidden to Force Alignment)


Punch Cards


Super retro. Punch cards were the first mechanical storage method. A punch card holds about 80 characters, so not even a fully fleshed out tweet could fit on one.

The punch card dates back to the 19th century, when it was used to program mechanical devices such as looms and player pianos. Punch cards were commonly used for computer programming through the 1980s. Although punch cards are now obsolete as a recording medium, we still use punch cards to store data today, mainly in standardized tests and voting.


Magnetic Drum


One big step for the magnet. The first magnetic drum held 48 KB, about five formatted .doc files.

Drum memory was originally invented by Gustav Tauschek in 1932, but magnetic drum memory wasn’t used in computing until US Navy codebreakers developed it during World War II. One drum was 16 inches long and held 40 tracks that spun at 12,500 revolutions per minute. Engineering Research Associates (ERA) continued development of the technology with their Atlas project. Drum memory consisted of a long metal cylinder coated in magnetic material, with rows of read-write heads situated on the axis of the drum. It was once used as a primary storage device and remained common in computing through the 50s and 60s, but is now used as an auxiliary storage device.


Williams-Kilburn Tube


The first form of random access memory (RAM). The first tubes held 1024 bits, or 128 bytes, which could fit about 128 characters. You’d need at least 72 of them to store a single JPG image file.

The Williams-Kilburn Tube, invented in 1947, featured the first fully electronic form of data storage. The device was 16 ½ inches long, 6 inches wide, and stored data by displaying a grid of dots on cathode ray tubes, and sending a static charge through the tubes. While the technology was revolutionary, its use was not long-lived, as superior technology was developed shortly after. It remains practically unknown today.


Magnetic Tape Drive


Very attractive. A 1200 foot roll of tape held 230 KB of data, about 10 PDFs or 23 formatted .doc files.

Invented in Germany in 1928, magnetic tape was first used to store data in 1951 on the Eckert-Mauchly UNIVAC I. Tape drives used motors to wind the magnetic tape from reel to reel, while passing a tape head to read, write, or erase data. More compact versions of this technology were common through the 1980s, like the VHS and cassette tape. Magnetic tape is used less and less for daily backups, but because of its inexpensive nature, it is still used for archiving data today.


Magnetic Core


A new standard. The first core memory used in a computer stored a little more than 2KB, roughly the size of a small PNG image file or 2,000 characters of text.

Invented in 1951, magnetic core memory was first used in the MIT Whirlwind computer. Core memory works by storing one bit of data on tiny magnetic rings, or cores. The more magnetic cores you pack into a core memory, the more data you can store on it. Core memory was the standard in computing from 1955 to 1975. As recently as 2004, a magnetic core memory system was found still in service in a telephony control system. It continues to capture the interest of modern enthusiasts today.


Hard Disk Drive (HDD)


The spin doctor. With 3.75 MB of storage, the first HDDs had enough storage space to hold a whole mp3 file, 45 seconds of low-resolution video, or 5 million characters of text.

The HDD, first introduced by IBM in 1956, weighed over a ton and was the size of a refrigerator. The HDD stores data on one or more rapidly rotating magnetic metal platters, or disks. The HDD is still ubiquitous today, with portable models becoming smaller, with higher storage capacity, every year. The solid state drive (SSD), created by Samsung, is only 2½ inches and can hold 16 terabytes of data. It is undoubtedly the highest capacity hard drive on the market today.


Floppy Disk


The Save Icon. The first 8-inch floppy disk developed held 80KB, enough to hold 8 formatted .doc files.

The floppy disk was developed at IBM’s San Jose laboratory in 1967. Originally, floppy disks were uncovered magnetic disks, hence the “flop.” Later, plastic envelopes were added to protect from dirt and scratches and varying sizes of the disk emerged. By 1978, more than 10 manufacturers were producing 5¼ inch floppy drives, but you might remember the 3½ inch disk best. By the mid-70s, floppy disks were the most widely used form of portable data storage. Floppy disks have limited use today, but are shockingly still used in US nuclear bases.


Compact Disc (CD)


The first highly portable optical storage. CDs had a capacity of 650 – 700 MB. That could hold 70,000 formatted .doc files, 140 minutes of low-resolution video, or, more appropriately, your favorite Radiohead album, OK Computer.

The Compact Disc was developed in 1982 by both Sony and Phillips. Although the CD was only 12 centimeters in diameter, when first introduced, the CD could hold more data than a personal computer’s hard drive. CD drives read the data stored on discs by shining a focused laser beam at the surface of the disc. CDs revolutionized the music industry in the 1980s, eventually replacing the vinyl record and cassette tape. The sale of CDs has been eclipsed by digital music in recent years, but still sell by the tens of millions every year.


Zip Drive


The home of the floppy disk. The first Zip Drive could hold about 100 minutes of MP3 audio. That’s equal to 20 minutes of low-resolution video or 1/7 of a CD.

The original Zip Drive was a medium-to-high-capacity removable floppy disk storage system, introduced by Iomega in late 1994. It launched with capacities of 100 MB, but later versions improved capacity from 250 MB to 750 MB. Some organizations still use Zip Drives today.


Digital Video Disc (DVD)


The bigger, badder compact disc. The first DVD had 1.46 GB of storage, big enough to hold a short movie or 2 CDs. Some manufacturers make dual-sided, single-layer discs that can hold 9.4 GB of data.

Also developed by Sony and Phillips, in addition to a host of other technology companies, the DVD came to be in 1995. The DVD stores data using the same optical functions as the CD, with improved storage capabilities. This time, the DVD changed the movie industry up, phasing out the widely used Video Home System (VHS). After enjoying its day in the sun, the DVD was later eclipsed by the Blu-ray disc.


SD Card


Size matters not. Unless you’re getting smaller, more portable data storage, that is. The first SD cards held around 64MB, enough to hold 50 photos or 13 minutes of low-resolution video which is around 1/11 of a CD. The highest capacity of an SD card today is 1 terabyte.

The Secure Digital standard was a joint development by SanDisk, Panasonic, and Toshiba in 1999. This technology built on previous iterations, such as the MultiMediaCard (MMC). SD cards use flash memory, which stores data in cells made of floating-gate transistors. The small size and thinness of the cards made them ideal for digital photography and videography. Later, mini and micro sizes of the cards were released.


USB Flash Drive


The drive of many names. The first flash drive developed held 8MB, so one or two eBooks, 90 seconds of low-resolution video or 800 .doc files. The world’s largest USB Flash Drive today has a 2 terabyte capacity.

M-Systems, an Israeli company, developed the USB Flash Drive in 1999. It is colloquially known as a thumb drive, pen drive, jump drive, disk key, disk on key, flash-drive, or a memory stick. Similar to SD cards, USB flash drives use flash memory. USB flash drives became popular as portable storage devices due to the convenience of plugging them into a computer’s USB port for data transfer.


Blu-ray Optical Disc


The disc. The myth. The legend. This high definition disc supported and stored 25 GB of high definition video at 1080p, which is around 36 CDs. Sony has cranked up optical disc storage to 3.3 terabytes today.

Intended to be the successor to the DVD, the Blu-ray optical disc was developed by a technology industry consortium. While older DVDs were only capable of 480p resolution, the Blu-ray swooped in with more than double the capacity. The name was derived from the relatively short wavelength blue laser capable of reading a higher density of data on the disc as opposed to the red laser used for reading DVDs.


Cloud Data Storage


Your data in the ether. Now, your storage capacity depends only on the plan you can pay for. The options are endless.

The first all web-based data storage system was PersonaLink Services, launched by AT&T in 1994. Amazon Web Services launched AWS S3 in 2006, in part starting the trend toward massive cloud data storage. With cloud storage, remote databases are used to store information, made accessible at any time via internet access. As cloud technologies improve, cloud storage will become less and less expensive.


Experts estimate that more than

2,700,000,000,000,000,000 KB

(2.7 zettabytes) of data exist in the digital universe today.

= 1 billion Blu-rays

About 90% of that has been created in the last few years.
We generate approximately
2,500,000,000,000,000 KB
(2.5 quintillion bytes) of new data every day.
That number is only going up, which means we’ll need a lot more data storage in the future.

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