IBM Punch Card (1937)

In 1881, Herman Hollerith, who would later form IBM, designed a paper punch machine to tabulate census data. It had taken the U.S. Census Bureau eight years to complete the 1880 census, but thanks to Hollerith's invention, that time was reduced to just one year. By 1937, IBM was processing up to 10 million punch cards each day. The paper-based storage medium remained prominent up until the 1970s before giving way to magnetic tape.

Click on the image for a larger view.

Paper Tape

Punched tape or perforated paper tape were similar to punch cards because paper tape contained patterns of holes to represent recorded data. But unlike its rigid counterpart, rolls of paper tape could feed much more data in one continuous stream, and it was incredibly cheap to boot. The same couldn't be said for the hardware involved. In 1966, HP introduced the 2753A Tape Punch, which boasted a blistering fast tape punch speed of 120 characters per second and sold for $4,150.

Click on the images for a larger view.

IBM Magnetic Tape

In the 1950s, IBM magnetic tape helped shape the computer and recording industry. Magnetic tape also changed the computing landscape by making long-term storage of vasts amount of data possible. A single reel of the oxide coated half-inch tape could store as much information as 10,000 punch cards, and most commonly came in lengths measuring anywhere from 2400 to 4800 feet. The long length presented plenty of opportunities for tears and breaks, so in 1952, IBM devised bulky floor standing drives that made use of vacuum columns to buffer the nickel-plated bronze tape. This helped prevent the media from ripping as it sped and up and slowed down.

Click on the image for a larger view.

Audio Cassette Tape

Long before flash-based MP3 players and CDs ever existed, music buffs carried around their tunes on compact cassette tapes. It was Philips who introduced the medium first to Europe in 1963 and then to the U.S. one year later initially as a means for portable dictation. Not until the audio quality of music players improved did cassettes become popular for listening to music. Cassettes were an inexpensive storage medium for home PCs starting in the 1970s. A standard 90-minute cassette could store roughly 700KB of data per side, taking center stage on computers like the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, TRS-80, and others.

Click on the image for a larger view.

T10000 Magnetic Tape

While Sun's StorageTek T10000 tape drive may seem out of place at this spot in our timeline, it is include to show the evolution of magnetic storage, which is still used today. Introduced in 2006, the T10000 can hold 500GB of data (the recently revised T10000B doubles the capacity to 1TB) and takes advantage of serpentine recording technology, which means it uses more tracks than tape heads. The heads write one track at a time across the entire length of the tape, then make another pass in reverse direction. The half-inch tape cartridges are produced by Imation and offer 120MB/s data transfer rates, keeping the 60-year-old tape technology relevant for high-volume backup and archiving.

8" Floppy Disk

The floppy disk although not in 8“form is still used today. The evolution of the floppy disk starts with the IBM 23FD introduced in 1971. These old-school floppies were little more than a circular magnetic film protected by a flexible plastic jacket, hence the term 'floppy.' At first a read-only medium in the aforementioned 23FD, later versions would add write-capability as well as increase the original's scant 80KB capacity by more than six times.

Click on the image for a larger view.

5.25" Floppy Disk

In 1976, computer company Wang Laboratories encouraged the development of smaller floppies, saying that the then current 8-inch disks were simply too large and unwieldy for home PCs. Shugart Associates responded by shrinking the format down to a more manageable 5.25 inches. The new size proved to be a hit, and by 1978, about a dozen manufacturers had begun developing 1.2MB 5.25-inch floppy drives. At its peak, Shugart Associates produced 4,000 floppy drives per day. Fun fact: Both LucasArt's original Maniac Mansion and Sierra's Leisure Suit Larry 1 shipped on two 5.25-inch floppies.

Click on the image for a larger view.

3.5" Floppy Disk

Size was only one of the problems plaguing floppy disks, even after shrinking down to 5.25 inches. It didn't take much to accidentally damage the flimsy protective jacket, and leaving the actual disk surface exposed to the elements made it easy for dirt, grime to gum up the actual media. Several smaller formats were developed, but it was Sony's 3.5-inch floppy that won the approval of the Microfloppy Industry Committee in 1982. It had a hard plastic shell and a sliding metal cover to protect the magnetic media from debris.

Click on the image for a larger view.

Compact Disc

Computer optical discs got off to a somewhat slow start. CDs first saw action as strictly a digital audio medium in 1982, but it didn't take long to see the potential for the PC. A few years later, the CD-ROM was born. However, early CD -ROM drives were slow, ultra expensive, and limited in media, making them more of a novelty than anything else. Helped in large part by the graphic adventure Myst, which arguably ushered in the era of CD gaming, CD-ROM drives became commonplace in the 1990s. Not long after, the rewritable CD-RW format came into being in 1997, offering 450 times the storage capacity than a typical floppy.

Click on the image for a larger view.

Zip Drive

By the mid-90s, the 1.44MB floppy had become ubiquitous with new PCs, but its low capacity made it ill suited for larger backups. Iomega in 1994 introduced its Zip Drive. Superior to 1.44MB floppies in nearly every way, Zip disks touted a higher quality magnetic coating making it possible to use a smaller read/write head. Combined with a variable amount of sectors per track, Zip disks touted 100MB of data storage, or the equivalent of nearly 70 floppy disks, and a 1MB/s transfer rate that was twice as zippy as a floppy. Capacity would later balloon to 250MB and then 750MB.

Click on the image for a larger view.

Jaz Drive

Unlike the Zip drive, Iomega's Jaz drive, which first appeared on the scene in 1995, has more in common with a hard disk drive than it does with floppy media. Offering 1GB of storage from the outset (and later 2GB), Jaz drives used hard, non-flexible film magnetic platters spinning at nearly 5400RPM. Even the load/unloading scheme was similar to a traditional hard drive. But the Jaz Drive had a tendency to fail, a high cost-per-gigabyte ratio, and the need to keep the drive laying flat with a SCSI interface.

Click on the image for a larger view.


The DVD emerged in 1995 as a successor to compact disks, and this time around, the optical media targeted PC users. As a result, the transition from CD to DVD as the default storage medium went much faster than the transition from floppy disks to CDs. Now, DVDs are considered the most cost effective means of portable storage due to the low price of single-layer media and DVD burners. Much slower has been the adoption of dual-layer media, which increases capacity from 4.7GB to 8.5GB per disk, though for a long while at a much higher cost.

SD Memory

Secure Digital cards were conceived as a competing format against Sony's Memory Stick and appeared on the storage scene in early 2000. Based on Toshiba's MultiMedia Card format (MMC), flash memory SD cards added DRM encryption features, are almost twice as thick as the slimmest MMCs, and offer faster transfer rates. Early SD cards were limited to just 32MB and 64MB capacities, but have since scaled to 32GB in high capacity SDHC cards. A new specification called SDXC (eXtended Capacity) promises a new capacity ceiling of 2TB.

USB Flash Drive

Arguably the most significant storage innovation since the 1.44MB floppy disk, the advent of USB flash drives in 2000 signaled the eventual end of the road for floppies. It wasn't the 8MB capacity at debut that won over power users, but the ability to boot from a USB key and, even more importantly, update a motherboard's BIOS. Vista holdouts still running XP with a RAID array are one of the few who still rely on a floppy drive, but it's far more common today to spot a modern build without a FDD installed, and it's all because of the USB flash drive.

Click on the image for a larger view.

Last Update: May 2019