The Past and Present of Storage Technology: From Punch Cards to Hard Disks, Information Technology's Rapid Development

When it comes to storage, everyone thinks of hard drives. In fact, storage is both a micro concept and a macro concept. Microscopically, it refers to data storage, computer storage, and hard disk storage. On a macro level, the custody and preservation of all items and information can be called storage. The development history of human civilization is actually based on the evolution of storage technology.

In ancient times, early human beings ignited the fire of human civilization by knotting ropes, tortoise shells, and animal bones. Later, with the advancement of craftsmanship, bamboo slips, wooden slips, and paper slips gradually became available, and people could better record information (history, culture, and skills), thus continuing and passing on civilization. In the 18th century, the industrial revolution began to sprout, which pushed human information storage technology to a new stage - the era of punched cards.

The era of punch cards

In 1725, the Frenchman Basile Bouchon invented the punch card for use in looms. 

Punch card loom (model)

You may be a little unfamiliar with this thing, it is a bit like the answer sheet we use for exams now. 

During the knitting process of the loom, the knitting needles will slide back and forth. Depending on the holes on the punched card, the knitting needles can hook up the warp (no holes, no hooks) to draw the pattern. In other words, the punch card is a memory that stores a "pattern program" that controls the loom. This invention marks the beginning of human mechanized information storage.

In 1801, French loom craftsman Joseph Marie Jdakacquard upgraded the punch card. He bundled punched cards in a certain order and turned them into ribbons, creating the prototype of Punched Tape. This paper tape is used in jacquard looms. In 1846, Alexander Bain, the inventor of the fax machine and the telegraph machine, introduced the technology of perforated paper tape into his telegraph machine, which greatly improved the efficiency of work.

This thing, Xiao Zaojun saw it with his own eyes many years ago (exposing his age)

In 1890, the emergence of a great man made the punch hole technology further develop. This person is the German-American - Herman Hollerith

Herman Holleri (1860-1929)

On the basis of punch cards, this dude invented the punch card tabulation machine, which was especially used to collect and count census data.

Punch card tabulation machine

This tabulator has faster statistics. According to historical records, in the 1890 U.S. Census, the count was completed in just 6 weeks by punching a film and a punch. In the previous 1880 US Census, the data were all processed manually, and it took seven years to get the final result. Such a huge increase in efficiency has made tabulating machines rapidly popularized in various industries. It marked the beginning of the era of semi-automated data processing systems.

Punch card technology was widely used until the 1960s

Later, in 1896, Herman Holleri founded the Tabulating Machine Company. This company is the predecessor of the famous IBM Corporation.

Magnetic Storage Era

Punch cards and tabulating machines belong to mechanical storage technologies. Although they have greatly improved their efficiency compared to traditional manpower, they still have the problems of high failure rate and low storage capacity. As a result, driven by electrical signal technology in the 19th century, a new type of storage technology gradually emerged, that is, magnetic media storage.

The first article on magnetic media was published in the British "Electrical World" magazine on September 8, 1888. In "Some Possible Forms of Phonographs," author Oberlin Smith published the earliest views on magnetic recording, suggesting: "The use of magnetic media to record sound."

Oberlin Smith (1840-1926)

In 1898, the Danish engineer Valdemar Poulsen put Oberlin Smith's ideas into action. He used magnet wire technology for the first time in his telegraph, making it the first practical magneto-acoustic recording and reproduction device.

Vadima Paulson's Magnet Wire Telegraph

The working principle of this magnetic recording device is not complicated: the device has a magnetic head, and the electrical signal of the sound is transmitted to the magnetic head, which produces a magnetization pattern similar to the signal, which is recorded. When reading, the magnetic head picks up changes in the magnetic field from the wire and converts them into electrical signals.

In 1928, German engineer Fritz Pfleumer invented the audio tape, which could store analog signals, marking the official opening of the era of magnetic storage. The working principle of this audio tape is also very simple: the shredded magnetic particles are glued to a strip of paper to make a tape. During the movement of the tape, with the strength of the audio signal, the degree of magnetization of the tape will also change, thereby recording the sound.

Interestingly, the Germans later pushed hard to improve tape technology in order to better disseminate Hitler's speech. The Americans later actively introduced this technology to spread popular music. In 1932, there was another major breakthrough in magnetic storage technology. In the same year, the Austrian engineer Gustav Tauschek invented the magnetic drum memory.

Drum memory

This memory is a bit like an electric motor. It consists of a large metal cylinder coated with a ferromagnetic recording material. Inside the memory enclosure, there are a number of static heads. Instead of looking for data, these heads wait for the magnetic fan to spin into place to read. As you can see, the magnetic wire has become a magnetic surface, and it is more and more like the later disk.

At that time, the original drum memory of Gustav Tausek had a capacity of about 500,000 bits (62.5KB). After entering the 1940s, human electronic digital computer technology began to explode.

In 1942, Professor John Vincent Atanasoff of Iowa State College and his student Clifford Berry invented the world's the first electronic digital computer (The previous ones were all mechanical computers) - ABC (Atanasoff-Berry Computer).

ABC (replica)

ABC uses binary numbers to represent all numbers and data, uses electronic components for computation (not mechanical switches), and separates computation from memory... all of these are elements of modern computers. Many readers will surely ask: the world's first digital electronic computer, isn't it ENIAC?

Actually not, ENIAC can only be ranked 11th. Also, the designers of ENIAC stole Atanasoff's designs. In 1973, a US court ruled to cancel ENIAC's patent. ABC used IBM's 80-column punch cards for input and output, using vacuum tubes to process data in binary format. Data storage is the use of regenerative capacitor drum memory (Regenerative Capacitor Memory).

After the first electronic computer, Vannevar Bush, the founder of the American technology management system and winner of the IEEE Edison Prize, made a prediction: "Humans will eventually invent machines that store all human knowledge such as books, records, communication, etc."

A crooked tech tree

In addition to magnetic storage, in the 1940s, mankind also expanded several other lines of storage technology. In 1946, Polish inventor Jan A. Rajchman invented a selective electrostatic memory tube, the Selectron Tube.

Jan Alexander Lachman and his Selectron Tube

It was humanity's first true digital, random-access high-speed memory (RAM), using an electrostatic charge to store data inside a vacuum tube, capable of briefly storing about 4000 bytes of data. In 1947, Freddie Williams (Freddie Williams) and Tom Kilburn (Tom Kilburn) invented and commercialized the Williams-Kilburn tube of a similar principle.

IBM's first commercial scientific computer, the 701, used 72 of these tubes as memory. More well-known than the above two kinds of memory is the mercury (mercury) delay line memory (Delay Line Memory) invented by J. Presper Eckert during World War II. The principle of this delay line memory is to store data by using the propagation delay of pressure waves. Take a tube and fill it with mercury (mercury). A speaker is placed on one end of the tube, and a microphone is placed on the other end.

A pressure wave is created when the speaker emits a pulse, and the pressure wave takes time to travel to the microphone on the other end, which converts the pressure wave back into an electrical signal. A pressure wave represents a 1 and no pressure wave represents a 0. Through the internal circuit, the microphone and speaker are connected, and the signal weakening is compensated by the amplifier, thus realizing a cycle of storing data. After developing the technology, Eckert and colleague John Mauchly designed ENIAC. Later, they made a bigger and better computer called EDVAC.

EDVAC (Guess who this man is?)

EDVAC uses a total of 128 delay lines, each of which can store 352 bits, and a total of 45,000 bits. It is one of the earliest "stored program computers". Delay line memory has a big disadvantage: only one bit of data can be read at a time, and it can only be read sequentially (hence the name "sequential memory" or "circular memory"). Thus, by the mid-1950s, delay line memory was largely obsolete.

The rise of a new type of memory technology has enabled an alternative to delay line memory "magnetic core memory" with higher performance, reliability, and lower cost. To put it bluntly, storage technology has evolved back to the technology line of magnetic storage. In 1947, American engineer Frederick Viehe applied for the first patent for magnetic core memory.

In 1948, the legendary Chinese scientist Wang An invented the "Pulse transfer controlling device", which realized the write-after-read of the magnetic core memory. In 1949, Wang An applied for a patent and sold it to IBM for $500,000.

Everyone should have heard of Wang An, who was the founder of the legendary IT company Wang An Computer. The principle of magnetic core memory is actually similar to that of magnetic drum memory. It uses the change of magnetization when energized to represent 0 and 1 to record data.

Wire the core and apply an electric current to magnetize it in one direction. If the current is turned off, the core remains magnetized. If the current is applied in the opposite direction, the direction (polarity) of the magnetization is reversed, which can be used to store 1's and 0's differently.

Magnetic core memory

The first large-scale use of magnetic core memory was the Whirlwind 1 computer at MIT in 1953. Later, Jay Forrester perfected the magnetic core storage technology and introduced the first reliable high-speed random access memory for computers. Magnetic core memory was widely used as the main memory of computers in the 1970s until Intel's semiconductor DRAM memory was mass-produced. It is worth mentioning that in 1951, magnetic tape was first used to store data on commercial computers, as the main I/O device on UNIVAC computers.


UNIVAC's tape drive

UNIVAC's use of tape technology caught the attention of IBM. Soon after, IBM invented a new tape mechanism that used vacuum column isolation to ensure that the tape was not easily torn during acceleration or deceleration. In 1952, IBM released a new tape storage device (model 726), which was sold with the IBM 701 computer.

The long overdue era of hard drives

On September 14, 1956, at a press conference at IBM, an enormous cabinet was shown.

The cabinet looks like an aquarium, is about 2 meters high, and weighs close to 1 ton. Inside the cabinet, there are layers of platters (61cm in diameter), a bit like stacked records.

What is this cabinet for?

The answer was revealed: it was the IBM 350 RAMAC, later known as the first hard drive in human history. (The full name is very long, called statistical control random access method, Random Access Method for Accounting Control.)

IBM 350 RAMAC More precisely, it is a business computer that uses a removable hard disk drive (HDD).

The IBM 350 RAMAC has a very small storage space of only 5MB. Its read and write rates are even more horribly low at 97.6Kb/s. However, such a "weak chicken" device, which was priced as high as $35,400 at the time (equivalent to more than $300,000 today), is not necessarily available.

As we all know now, the birth of the IBM 350 RAMAC is of great significance it marks the official entry of mankind into the era of hard drives. The rapid development of digital technology has completed another important puzzle. Since then, as the pioneer and leader of storage technology, IBM has continued to lead the development of the hard disk product. In 1962, IBM released the first removable hard drive, 1311, which had six 14-inch platters and could store 2.6MB of data.

 IBM1311 looks a bit like a stove

In 1973, IBM invented the Winchester hard drive 3340, which used a sealed assembly, a lubricated spindle, and a low-mass head. Its characteristic is that the magnetic head is suspended above the high-speed rotating platter without direct contact with the platter, which is the prototype of the modern hard disk. The reason why this hard drive is called "Winchester" is mainly because its two 30MB storage units are exactly the caliber and reload of the famous "Winchester Rifle" at the time.

The Winchester architecture is very similar to the current hard drive

After the "Winchester" disk drive was born, the basic architecture of modern hard drives was established. Since then, the main development direction of hard disks is the continuous increase in capacity and the continuous reduction in volume. In other words, the architecture of the HDD you are using today is not much different than it was in 1973.

In 1980, IBM introduced the first GB-level storage hard drive. In the same year, a little-known company invented a cheap hard drive product and began to challenge IBM's status. This company was Seagate, which was founded in 1979.

Seagate's hard drive model is ST-506. The platter measures 5.25 inches, much smaller than IBM's 3340. This hard drive can store 5MB of data and costs about $1,500. Soon after, Seagate introduced the ST-412 with a 10MB capacity.


In 1983, the Scottish company Rodime released the world's first 3.5-inch hard drive, which was equally profound. The emergence of small-sized hard drives laid the foundation for the birth of personal PCs and created conditions for the digitization of families and small and medium-sized enterprises. Everyone knows that there is a Moore's Law in the semiconductor field. In fact, hard disks also have their own laws, that is - the capacity density of hard disks increases by about 1 time every year.

By the 1990s, Nobel Laureates in Physics Albert Fert and Peter Grunberg discovered the giant magnetoresistance effect. The GMR giant magnetoresistance effect head technology and SMR corrugated stacked disk technology based on this effect research have successfully increased the track density of mechanical hard disks by hundreds of times.

In 2007, Hitachi (which acquired IBM's hard drive division in 2003) pioneered the terabyte-class hard drive, a major milestone in storage technology. The hard disk adopts vertical storage technology, which changes the direction of the magnetic field parallel to the disk to vertical, making more full use of the storage space. In addition, the vertical storage technology has low energy consumption and reduced heat generation, which improves the ability of data to resist thermal degradation and improves the reliability of hard disks.

In 2010, the mass production of helium packaging technology not only increased the capacity of the hard disk, but also reduced the temperature and power consumption, and greatly improved its durability and stability. In early 2022, Seagate confirmed that it will launch a 22TB capacity mechanical hard drive (using a shingled type), which is expected to set the record for the largest single-disk capacity of a mechanical hard drive.

Floppy and CD-ROM

Next, let's briefly talk about floppy disks and CD-ROMs. The world's first floppy disk, also from IBM, was born in 1971. At that time, the diameter of this floppy disk was 8 inches, the capacity was 80KB, and it was read-only but not writable. Four years later, the readable floppy disk was born, and the capacity increased to 256KB. Later, with the development of technology, the 5.25-inch floppy disk was born and is widely used in Apple II, IBM PC, and other compatible computers.

In 1980, Japan's Sony developed the 3.5-inch floppy disk which became the market standard. In 1984, Apple began to use 3.5-inch floppy disks on the Mac. At the time, floppy disks were less than 1MB in capacity. Later, the 1.44MB floppy disk became the mainstream of the market.

In 2005, when Xiaozaojun was still in college, he used this kind of floppy disk, which is very easy to damage.

Later, the maximum capacity of the floppy disk was 250MB. However, with the advent of CDs and USB sticks, floppy disks quickly disappeared from the market. Look at the disc again. Compared to floppy disks, CDs have a much longer lifespan. American physicist Russell Russell invented the first Compact Disk/CD (Digital-Optical Recording and Playback System) in 1965 and filed a patent application in 1966, which was the predecessor of the later CD/DVD.

In 1982, Sony and Philips released the world's first commercial CD audio player, the CDP-101, and optical discs became popular. Ordinary standard 120-type disc, the maximum capacity has reached 700MB. DVD was originally an acronym for Digital Video Disc. In 1995, IBM took the lead in unifying the high-capacity optical disc standard into DVD, redefining it as Digital Versatile Disc (Digital Versatile Disc). At that time, the capacity of DVD could reach 4.7GB.

When Blu-ray DVDs came on the market, the capacity of each disc was as high as 25G or 27GB. With multiple layers, it can reach an astonishing 400GB (16 layers). Optical discs don't actually work with magnetism, but rather craters -- there are many small pits on the surface of the disc, which cause different reflections of light, which optical sensors pick up and decode as 1s and 0s.

After entering the 21st century, information technology has developed at an explosive speed. The popularity of the Internet and the rise of mobile phones have greatly accelerated the digitalization of the entire society. The resulting data growth is also staggering. Although traditional HDD hard drives are constantly improving their capacity and performance, they still cannot meet the needs of the times.

As a result, a new type of storage technology rose rapidly and began to replace HDDs. This technology is semiconductor storage. What exactly is semiconductor storage? What do you often hear about DRAM, FLASH, NAND, SSD... What do they mean? Stay tuned for the next episode: The past and present of storage technology (Part 2): the strongest introduction to semiconductor storage. Alright, thank you for your patience, see you next time!

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