A History of Computer Memory and Storage

For as long as there has been computing, there has been a need to store the information produced by computing as memory. In this blog, we will explore a brief history of computer memory, from its origins to modern day.

The first type of computer memory took the form of paper punch cards. Punch cards were first used in 1725 in the textile industry, to control the mechanized textile looms. In the 1890s, Herman Hollerith used punch cards for census calculation for determining the population of the United States. Essentially a thick sheet of paper with holes punched through it, patterns could be imprinted on the punch card that could be interpreted by a machine. Later, they were used as an input device for computers up to the 1970s.

In 1932, magnetic drums were first created to store memory, and used up to the 1950s and 1960s as the main working memory for computers, giving them the nickname “drum machines.” Their capacity clocked in at a whopping 10 kB.

In the 1950s, paper tape, the evolution of punch cards, was developed. Instead of a card, paper tape consists of a long strip of paper, with holes punched at various locations to represent data.

After paper came magnetic tape, which worked in the same manner but could store more information. Stored in a roll similar to film and read/written by a read/write head, it is one of the oldest technologies for data storage still in use, due to its high capacity, low cost, and long durability.

In 1956, IBM released the first hard disk drive, the Model 350 Disk File, that came with the IBM 305 RAMAC computer. With 50 24-inch wide discs, it could store about 5 MB of data. The size of those discs was part of why the RAMAC weighed over a ton.

Philips introduced the first compact audio cassette in 1963. Originally intended for dictation machines, they became popular for distributing music, an aspect that Sony’s Walkman (released in 1979) helped push even further. Cassettes were also used for data storage on personal computers in the 1970s and 80s, with a storage capacity of about 660 kB per side on a 90-minute tape.

The floppy disk, introduced in 1971, was an alternative to buying expensive hard drives. The first 8-inch floppy disk had a storage capacity of 79.7 kB and was read-only, with the rewritable version following a year later. Floppy disks remained prevalent until the 1990s, where they were ultimately replaced by…

The compact disc, which was first developed in 1982. The concept of the CD went back to 1960, when James T. Russel thought of using light to record and replay music, but it took several decades for the concept to get support. By encoding tiny pits of digital data into the bottom of the discs, CDs could store far greater amounts of information.

In 1995, the Digital Video Disc, or DVD, was developed by Panasonic, Philips, Sony, and Toshiba as a faster alternative to the compact disc and could store multimedia data like movies and video.

Five years later, the Universal Serial Bus series of flash drives were invented by Israeli company M-Systems. USB drives have since become one of the most popular forms of digital memory storage, with almost every electronic device designed with USB ports in mind.


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