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Data Storage – Punch Cards to Thumb Drives


The increased need for data safety has continued to grow over the years and this has subsequently created a need for better data storage tools (Trikha 1449). Whereas a computer may be replaced in the event of any form of a disaster, this is not the case with the data that has been kept by an organization for ages. Without any doubt, data is one of the most important assets to any organization. The destruction or even disappearance of the data which an organization relies on can put the organization in a very awkward situation. It is for this reason and many others that organizations will work hard to ensure that data is securely stored (Trikha 1449).

In the past, data was kept in simple hardware devices that were fully controlled by the computer (Trikha 1449). The IBM punch card was one such device that was used for many years to allow computer users to store their data. This has, however, been replaced by the use of better storage devices. The USB thumb drive and other similar technologies which are much faster, smaller in size and bigger in capacity are now easily available in the market at reasonable prices. According to Lilly (1), the current trend of development in storage media technology will soon bring us to a time when having USB thumb drives with very large capacities will no longer be a dream but a reality.

In the beginning, computer users would store their data on huge magnetic storage materials known as magnetic tapes. Punch cards, as well as paper tape, were also used (Yurin 1). This was later followed by a slightly better technology that used floppy disks of varying sizes. Major strides in the growth of storage media have, however, led to the death of some of these technologies. According to Wilson’s Electronic (1), users now have an opportunity to make use of newer data storage technology that is very reliable, pretty fast and able to provide higher capacities than the earlier technologies used for similar reasons. This paper looks at how the storage media has evolved with time. From the use of punch cards in the early days, we are now able to make use of very high-speed miniaturized devices that are also fairly priced.

Development of Storage Media

The development of storage media has seen different eras using different technologies for data storage come and go. Even though newer technologies are now in use almost everywhere, there are some older technologies such as magnetic tape that are still being improved and their popularity has not yet faded (Yurin 1).

Punch Cards

Punch cards are seen by many as the very first devices that were ever used to store data (Trikha 1449). The cards made use of punched holes to represent the data to be stored. Holes on the cards would correspond to zeros while the absence of holes would imply the presence of a one. Programmers would work closely with card printers to accomplish the whole task of data storage (Wilson’s Electronic 1). According to Edwards (3), the advent of punch cards is closely linked to the use of textile machines in the early 1800s. The cards in these machines relayed instructions that controlled the entire operation of the machine. Herman Hollerith, the founder of International Business Machines (IBM), later made use of the idea of punched cards in tabulation machines (Edwards 3). Before Hollerith’s concept of using punched cards to carry out the tabulation of census data, it would take the U.S. government so many years to generate census results. The use of the punch card technology reduced this duration drastically (Lilly 1). Punch cards grew in popularity when IBM used the technology to build their computers in the 1950s setting the stage for many other manufacturers of computers to start using different formats of punch cards (Edwards 3). The use of this technology to store data remained popular until the 1970s when the use of magnetic tapes slowly began to replace it (Lilly 1). Similar to the punch cards technology was the paper tape technology. Unlike the punch cards, the paper tape technology was much cheaper and could allow rolls of paper tape to be fed in a continuous stream (Lilly 1).

Magnetic Tapes

Although used for a very long period to store data, punched cards were very slow and their capacity was quite a limiting factor. They also made use of a combination of so many devices and demanded so much time and effort to process. These drawbacks soon led people to start using magnetic tape. Bit by bit, better-performing magnetic tapes replaced the use of the punch cards (Trikha 1449). IBM first made use of magnetic tapes for data storage in the 1950s. Given that so much data could be stored in a single roll of magnetic tape, the technology soon gained popularity and became a preferred option for data storage at the time (Trikha 1449). Because of the high level of reliability, scalability and the low cost associated with acquiring magnetic tapes; they became an instant choice for data storage and still are to date (Yurin 1). Generally, the magnetic tapes are made up of thin plastic strips covered with sensitive magnetic material on which the computers would write to and read from using read/write heads entrenched in a tape drive (Edwards 4). Lilly (1) observed that the possibility of storing large amounts of data on magnetic tapes considerably transformed the way people stored data. There was, however, a major challenge associated with the use of long lengths of the tapes. The tapes would get ripped as they moved within the system. IBM later addressed this problem by designing magnetic tapes that prevented the tape from getting torn as it moved within the system (Lilly 1). A number of people used rolls of tape for storing large volumes of data until much later when storage media designers made a move to start using tape cartridges (Edwards 4). The cartridges made it possible to package miniaturized rolls of magnetic tapes into hard plastic enclosures that ensured the safety of data and the media itself. Edwards (6), points out that the use of the cartridges greatly improved the performance of the magnetic tape and offered a much better way of accommodating larger spools of magnetic tape. The media was more resilient, easily transferable and made it possible to provide for flexible storage capacities. The tape sizes could be increased by simply varying the length of the magnetic tape accordingly. This led to the increased popularity of the tape cartridges and even though manufacturers are currently releasing better quality hard drive storage into the market some tape cartridges are still considered better choices for use as server backup devices (Edwards 6).

Floppy Diskette

The use of floppy disks was introduced by IBM in 1971. Initially, they could only be read but later designs went on to include write capabilities (Lilly 2). The floppy disks made use of bendable disks that were covered with magnetic material and enclosed in plastic casings for security. The popularity of floppy disks resulted from the fact that they could be used to load data as well as programs into the computer. They were also faster and significantly cheaper than the punch card devices and they also allowed users to transport data from one computer to another (Lilly 2). According to Trikha (1449), the floppy disks first existed in 1969 and could store only up to 80-kilo bytes of data. A few years later, rewritable floppy disks with slightly higher capacities became available. Even though the disks could not store so much data, their cheap prices made them very popular (Trikha 1449). At first, the floppy diskettes were quite big but later designs considerably reduced the sizes. Further advances in the technology also saw the design of double-sided double-density disks that were able to store even more data. The floppy disk technology reached its peak with the development of the 3.5” floppies that were much smaller and easy to carry around (Wilson’s Electronic 1). Edwards (11) shows that many other manufacturers tried to design their own formats of floppy disks but these could not match the 3.5” and the 5.25” floppy diskettes. They soon died a natural death. The floppy disk was, however, prone to a number of errors and as a result, not very reliable.

The Optical Technology

This technology was first seen in 1982 and is mainly associated with the development of compact discs and was jointly developed by Sony and Philips (Edwards 12). The technology stores digital data on pits formed on the disk surface and this information is read by means of laser beams. Due to their digital nature, the compact disks are very convenient for storing data for long-term use (Edwards 12). The technology led to the manufacture of Compact Disk Read Only Memory (CDROM). Growth in this technology has made it possible for manufacturers to develop devices such as the Digital Versatile Disk (DVD) and the Blu-ray disks that are now available in the market. The introduction of this ushered in a new era that could enable users to write data onto the disks for long-term storage. Besides data storage, CDs were also used extensively to carry out installations. The programs were written onto the disks and would later be installed by running them from the CDs.

Hard Drives

According to Trikha (1449), the first hard drive came into existence in 1956 courtesy of IBM. From its inception, the hard drive technology has been subjected to numerous transformations driven by the quest for faster, smaller, and cheaper external storage media with larger capacities (Trikha 1449). Yurin (1) explains that the hard drive was adopted as a standard component for data storage on personal computers from the year 1983. One feature that led to the acceptance of the hard drive was the introduction of the Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks (RAID) in 1990. This technology-enabled users to configure more than one hard drive data sharing and replication. With further improvements and a reduction in cost, the hard drive soon became a favorable substitute for magnetic tape (Yurin 1).

Different hard drive technologies exist to allow the hard drives to be connected to the computer system. Parallel Advanced Technology Attachment (PATA) which is a form of the Integrated Drive Electronics (IDE) is one of the widely used standards for connecting hard drives. Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (SATA) is a serial version of the IDE that greatly improved performance. Other technologies include Small Computer Systems Interface (SCSI) and Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) which is a much faster technology than SCSI. With the advent of the Universal Serial Bus (USB) connection it is now possible for designers to extend the computer’s storage capability by manufacturing USB enabled external storage devices that are smaller in size but with bigger capacities. These drives are very flexible, easy to carry around and relatively fast.

Flash Drives

Also referred to as the thumb drive, the flash drive is seen as the technology of not only today but also the future. Trikha (1450) points out that even though the concept of flash drives has not been around for such a long period of time, the use of the technology has gained so much popularity. According to Yurin (1) flash disks came into existence in 1998 and today they are all over. The portable nature of the flash drive and its ability to store very large amounts of data are some of the factors that are responsible for its growth. A flash drive can also be made in extremely small sizes and at a very reasonable cost. Lilly (6) argues that the flash drive technology is the most important development in the storage media and the coming of the flash drives has almost fully eliminated the use of floppy disk drives. Today, there is very minimal use for floppy disks and most computers are now made without floppy disk drive bays. Some advantages that come with the use of flash drives include the possibility of booting a computer system from a flash disk as well as the fact that it can allow a user to update the Basic Input Output System (BIOS) on the motherboard (Lilly 6). Flash drives make use of the USB connection that is currently a default connection on all modern computer systems. The plug and play functionality linked to the use of the USB connection has made it quite convenient to connect the flash drives to a computer system (Edwards 19).


As the amount of data to be stored continues to increase and as people long to see faster, smaller and more efficient storage media available in the market for their data requirements, it is rather obvious that further revolution is expected. Some people have argued that soon there will be no need for removable storage devices as users across the world slowly welcome the idea of cloud computing and virtual offices. This will be made possible by the fact that more and more people are now turning to the use of the Internet to get work done.

Works Cited

Edwards, Benj. From Paper Tape to Data Sticks: The Evolution of Removable Storage. San Francisco: PCWorld Communications, Inc. 2010. Web.

Lilly, Paul. Computer Data Storage through the Ages – From Punch Cards to Blu-Ray. San Francisco: Future US, Inc. 2009. Web.

Trikha, Bindu. A Journey from Floppy Disk to Cloud Storage. International Journal on Computer Science and Engineering Vol. 02, No. 04, 2010, 1449-1452.

Wilson’s Electronic. 3.5″ FDD (Floppy Disk Drive) is Dead! Long live the USB Drive! St. George, UT: Wilson’s Electronic. 2006. Web.

Yurin, Maxim. The History of Backup. Alexandria, VA: SoftLogica. n.d. Web. 2011.

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