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A history of removable storage

From paper tape to USB sticks


Over the years, people have tried to transfer information from one computer to another in a dizzying number of ways. Here's a look at some of the best, along with others that time forgot.

Tape cartridges

In the 1960s, computer makers began placing spools of miniature magnetic tape into hard plastic cartridges.

These cartridges were more durable, portable, and convenient than the larger open reels of magnetic tape, and their popularity as a backup medium for ever-growing hard disks increased in the 1970s and 1980s.

Like earlier open-reel systems, the capacity of tape-cartridge systems had the advantage of flexible capacity.

When storage needs increased, tape manufacturers simply created cartridges that held more tape. More tape meant more space.

Today, tape cartridges like the 800GB LTO Ultrium (lower left) remain in use for large-scale server backups, though their popularity has diminished over the last decade as hard-drive-to-hard-drive transfers have gained favour.

Photos: IBM/Digital/3M

Printed on paper

In the 1970s, the relatively low cost of personal computers attracted home computer hobbyists to the then-new category of machines, but many forms of electronic data storage were too expensive for these users.

One of the first PCs, the MITS Altair, shipped with no storage media whatsoever; instead, users had to input programs via switches on the front panel of the computer (a program for which is shown at far upper-left).

Throughout the early PC days, users often wrote programs down by hand and then toggled them in.

Later still, national magazines printed and distributed program listings (right) for users to type into the inexpensive home computers of the 1980s.

Photos: MITS/Compute/Garrett Birkel

NEXT PAGE: The floppy diskette

  1. From paper tape to USB sticks
  2. Data on tape
  3. Tape cartridges
  4. The floppy diskette
  5. The ROM cartridge
  6. The optical disc
  7. Iomega and the zip drive
  8. A removable mess
  9. Removable storage for your rodent
  10. The hive mind


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