The exciting future of magnetic tape …

Its hard enough for modern computer users to imagine a time when magnetic tape was the average medium of storage, never mind the notion of libraries full of meticulously sorted boxes full of punch cards. This wonderful ad (Courtesy, as always, of Modern Mechanix) for Remington Rand magnetic tape storage, is from a 1953 Scientific American, when magnetic tape storage was the next big thing. While claims like “120 bytes per inch” seem very quaint in today’s world of near-terabyte sized storage on our desktops, and gigabytes in our MP3 players, in 1953 it represented a remarkable amount of data compression when compared to old technology.

I can’t claim to be old enough to have really worked with punch cards, but they were still in use at the University of Calgary as late as the late 1970’s when my mother was taking her undergraduate psychology degree. As a precocious, curious kid, I found I had a knack for logical thinking when I helped her through her first year computer science course, where I also got to play with the University’s Multics system, as well as a then exciting new system called UNIX, support of which ended up becoming my career in later years. The interfaces to the systems I played with were some of the first CRT’s, as well as paper console printers, typically feeding a system working with some disk and tape storage, but there was still a large card reading system in place at the time, and much of the first year course work was still done on punched cards.

Given the ubiquitousness in the late 70’s, its easier to see that in 1953, punched cards were the primary means of data storage and entry for computer systems. Its important not to understate that … everything that now happens with your hard-drive was then accomplished by boxes and boxes of cards, meticulously ordered, filed, and stored. The value of being able to compress 20000 cards down to an 8-inch reel can’t be understated, really … its a space savings of many orders of magnitude. When you add in the ‘security’ of a format that doesn’t allow for cards to be disordered, and the future possibilities of automatic mounting that was VERY tricky in a world of thousands, or millions, of specifically ordered cards, the rise of magnetic tape as a storage medium is really part of the birth of the modern computing experience we know today, even though today we see it as an archaic medium suitable only for backups.

In the gleaming atomic age of the 50’s, there were many needs for lightning fast systems, in military, in business, in the emerging aerospace industries, and the bulky card systems simply didn’t offer the flexibility required. Systems like the Fac-tronic from Remington Rand (shown here in a 1952 ad from Scientific American for the base system) were able to provide speeds previously unheard-of because of, in large part, the ease and flexibility of magnetic tape. For the first time, “active memory” was limited only by the number of tape drives you could buy and hook into your system, and data that once took warehouses to store could be kept in the back office on a few racks of tape.

Its hard for us to look back from todays perspective of instant data storage in massive quantities, of the ability chart and forecast 12 months of economic data in Excel in a few seconds processor time, and see how revolutionary concept this was, but for the first time it was possible to think of computing in terms of an ‘interactive’ process, rather than a ‘batch’ one of feeding endless streams of cards into a machine and waiting for a result, and its that interactivity that REALLY defines our modern computing experience from the old days. Sitting here at my keyboard in front of my 20″ wide screen LCD monitor hooked to an average Dell desktop that makes the Fac-tronic look like a poorly expressed calculator, with a hard drive that stores literally billions of those 8″ tapes, its worth remembering that the whole experience starts with magnetic tape storage, and the ability to access and store large banks of information in small (relatively speaking) spaces.

Now, for the first time, a commercial or industrial firm can have — first thing any morning — complete facts and figures, analyzed and summarized, on its previous day’s performance … in production, in sales, in procurement or any other major or minor activity.
From the Fac-tronic ad, Scientific American 1952

Today, we expect to be able to project the next 12 months 4 different ways, in time for the lunch meeting in 30 minutes. I often think its worth remembering that none of that is even conceivable in the paradigm of punch cards, and it is through magnetic tape that we start the slow march to the modern world of computer interactivity.

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One Response

  1. So what’s the future of magnetic tape?

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