Computer Data Storage Through the Ages -- From Punch Cards to Blu-Ray


Your next build may very well come configured with dual-SSD drives in a RAID 0 array for the OS, a gluttonous 2TB SATA HDD for storage duties, and a Blu-ray optical drive for movie watching and HD backups. And for quick transfers from one rig to another, does it get any sweeter than a 64GB USB thumb drive loaded with all of your favorite apps? Such a storage scheme is certainly worthy of dream machine status, but our storage options weren't always as fanciful, fast, and fat as they are today. Some of you may remember toting a 3.5-inch floppy to and from school, while others hearken all the way back to cassette tapes. And if you've lived long enough to remember the IBM Punch Card first hand, just ask and we'll SPEAK LOUDER.

Fasten your seatbelt and take a trip back in time with us as we follow the evolution of computer storage from its earliest days, all the way up to now.

IBM Punch Card

Data storage no longer grows on trees, but that hasn't always been the case. We have to set our DeLorean for the 18th century to witness the birth of punch cards, which consisted of hard card stock with punched holes to represent data. In 1881, Herman Hollerith, who would later form IBM, designed a paper punch machine to tabulate census date. 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. The format really came into its own as a data processing technology in the 1900s, and by 1937, IBM was churning out 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.

(Image Credit: IBM)

Approximate Years in Use: 1725 - 1975
Maximum Capacity: 960 bits

Paper Tape

Similar to punch cards, 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 pinch speed of 120 characters per second and sold for $4,150. Yikes!

(Image Credit:

Approximate Years in Use: 1846 - 1990s
Maximum Capacity: Up to a few dozen kilobytes before becoming impractical

IBM Magnetic Tape

Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and magnetic tape all rose to prominence in the 1950s, and it was the latter that helped shape the 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.

(Image Credit:

Approximate Years in Use: 1951 - Present
Maximum Capacity: About 1TB

Audio Cassette Tape

Long before flash-based MP3 players and CDs ever existed, music buffs carried around their groovy 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, ushering in the era of boom boxes and parachute pants (thanks M.C. Hammer). But even before D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince could be heard belting out "Parents Just Don't Understand," cassettes also scored a gig as 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.

Approximate Years in Use: Early 1970s - late 1980s
Maximum Capacity: 1400KB

T10000 Magnetic Tape

While Sun's StorageTek T10000 tape drive may seem out of place at this spot in our timeline, we include it here 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.

(Image Credit: Sun)

Approximate Years in Use: 2006 - Present
Maximum Capacity: About 1TB

8" Floppy Disk

The floppy disk might one day go down as the only creature as resistant to extinction as the cockroach. A format that simply refuses to die, the evolution of the floppy disk starts with the IBM 23FD introduced in 1971. These ginormous 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.

(Image Credit: Flickr Ethan Hein)

Approximate Years in Use: 1971 - 1976
Maximum Capacity: About 1.2MB (double-sided, double density)

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 (pictured below) and Sierra's Leisure Suit Larry 1 shipped on two 5.25-inch floppies.

Approximate Years in Use: 1976 - 1982
Maximum Capacity: 1.2MB (high density)

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, and Cheetos residue 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. A hard plastic shell meant you could toss a disk across the room to a co-worker, and a sliding metal cover protected the magnetic media from debris. Miraculously, the 3.5-inch form factor has extended the floppy's lifespan another three decades, and only recently has it become common to find new PCs with a naked 3.5-inch drive bay.

Approximate Years in Use: 1982 - Present
Maximum Capacity: About 1.44MB

Compact Disc

It was only a matter of time before computer storage would turn to frickin' lasers, but optical discs got off to somewhat of a 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.

(Image Credit: Flickr Kurt Koller)

Approximate Years in Use: 1980 - Present
Maximum Capacity: About 700MB
(without overburning)

Magneto-Optical Drive

In no way related to the comic book hero, the magneto-optical drive (MOD) introduced around 1990 could also be considered a mutant of sorts. Just as its name suggests, the magneto-optical drive combines both magnetic and optical technologies to achieve high densities. The disc itself contains a ferromagnetic material, which is never exposed from the plastic enclosure. A laser than heats up the material and, well, a lot of technical stuff happens. But the end result is a storage medium that ranged in capacity from 128MB (90mm discs) all the way up to 9.2GB (130mm). If you've ever owned one of these drives, award yourself 100 geek-cred points, and 1000 points if you still own one.

Approximate Years in Use: 1990 - Present (not prominent in the U.S.)
Maximum Capacity: About 2.6GB


If there's one constant in the computer world, it's that smaller is better, making PCs the anti-Viagra. There are exceptions to the rule, however, one of them being the MiniDisc (MD) format. Utilizing magneto-optical technology, MDs consisted of a ferromagnetic material housed in a plastic coating (sound familiar?), and like CDs, the format was intended to replace cassette tapes in the audio industry. Also like CDs, the MiniDisc format migrated to the PC, making the jump in 1993. MD media would eventually scale to 1GB, but was never able to win widespread consumer support as a data storage medium.

(Image Credit: Sony)

Approximate Years in Use: 1992 - 1996
Maximum Capacity: About 1GB

Colorado Backup

Look around and you'll still find tape backups being used by businesses even today. Housed in quarter-inch cartridges pronounced 'quick' (QIC), tape backups were particularly popular in the early 90s and synonymous with Colorado Memory Systems. HP acquired the QIC maker and continued to sell Colorado backup solutions until discontinuing production in March 2001.

(Image Credit:

Approximate Years in Use: Early 1990s - 2001
Maximum Capacity: About 14GB


Many of today's high-tech DSLR cameras still rely on CompactFlash (CF), a portable mass storage device SanDisk brought to market 15 years ago. The first CF cards, called Type I, were slightly thinner than the Type II cards currently in use, and early CF media relied on Intel's NOR flash memory. The format has since made the leap to higher density NAND flash chips, resulting in higher capacities, lower costs, and better write performance. Today's CF cards top out at 64GB.

(Image Credit: SanDisk)

Approximate Years in Use: 1994 - Present
Maximum Capacity: 100GB

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 looked to dethrone the aging standard in 1994 with the introduction of 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. Unfortunately for Iomega, advances in other storage mediums ultimately all but killed off the Zip drive after a briefly successful run. Kind of like Vanilla Ice. Zip, zip, baby .

(Image Credit: Iomega)

Approximate Years in Use: 1994 - 2003
Maximum Capacity: About 750MB

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 tendency to fail, a high cost-per-gigabyte ratio, the need to keep the drive laying flat, and SCSI interface didn't leave users feeling jazzed about the Jaz.

(Image Credit:

Approximate Years in Use: 1995 - 2002
Maximum Capacity: About 2GB


The DVD emerged in 1995 as a successor to compact disks, and this time around, the optical media targeted PC users just as much as it did movie buffs. 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 fourteen years later, 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. The move to DVDs have been particularly well received by gamers, who grew tired of installing games from multiple CDs. The MPAA, on the other hand, has been decidedly less enthused. What a killjoy!

(Image Credit: Microsoft)

Approximate Years in Use: 1995 - Present
Maximum Capacity: About 8.5GB (dual-layer)


In 1997, 3M released the aptly named SuperDisk (otherwise known as the LS-120) under what would eventually become its Imation spin-off. Waving around 120MB media (and later 240MB), 3M looked to lure users away from the 3.5-inch floppy and its limp 1.44MB capacity. Further tempting dissatisfied floppy users, the SuperDisk also promised better performance in the form of faster read and write speeds, and backwards compatibility with both 1.44MB and 720KB floppy disks. But despite all that 3M's SuperDisk had going for it, little miss Zip drive had already been strutting her stuff in the market for 3-years building up a satisfied userbase reluctant to make the switch.

(Image Credit: Imation)

Approximate Years in Use: 1997 - 2000
Maximum Capacity: About 240MB


Like so many other formats, SmartMedia was intended as yet another storage medium to supersede the floppy when Toshiba launched the format in 1995. As such, Toshiba originally referred to its new storage device as a Solid State Floppy Disk Card (SSFDC), and a device called a FlashPath adapter made it possible to use the media in 3.5-inch floppy drives. Consisting of a single NAND chip encased in thin plastic, it would later be renamed SmartMedia, where its true calling was as portable storage for use in digital cameras, PDAs, and other handheld gadgets.

(Image Credit: FujiFilm)

Approximate Years in Use: 1995 - Present
Maximum Capacity:


IBM had no intentions of letting CompactFlash monopolize the portable storage front, and so in 1999 Big Blue launched the Microdrive, a miniature hard disk that could be used in CF Type II slots. IBM ramped up capacity from 170MB to 340MB in its first generation of Microdrives, and the miniature disks continued to outpace the storage ceiling of CF media until 2006. Since then, CF has far surpassed the 8GB limit of current Microdrives, leaving Microdrives inferior in both capacity and durability (because of moving parts). Nevertheless, Microdrives managed to find a home in many popular devices, including older iPod Mini models, Dell Digital Jukebox (5GB), and several other handheld electronics.

(Image Credit: Hitachi)

Approximate Years in Use: 1999 - Present
Maximum Capacity: About 8GB

2.5" Portable Hard Drive

Prairie Tek can lay claim as the first to offer a 2.5-inch hard drive designed for the notebook in 1988, but we're talking about the much more recent movement towards portable storage from PC to PC. Today Newegg lists 177 portable 2.5-inch hard drives, with all but one of them sporting a USB 2.0 interface. Many portable drives come with some kind of automatic or push-button backup solution, with capacities reaching as high as 1TB. Going forward, look for the eSATA interface to become more prominent.

(Image Credit: Western Digital)

Approximate Years in Use: Mid 2000s - Present
Maximum Capacity: About 1TB

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. Moreover, a new specification called SDXC (eXtended Capacity) promises a new capacity ceiling of 2TB.

Approximate Years in Use: 1999 - Present
Maximum Capacity: About 32GB

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. Way to go, killer.

(Image Credit: Corsair)

Approximate Years in Use: 2000 - Present
Maximum Capacity: About 64GB


For a short while, the now defunct HD-DVD standard looked to be the front runner in the high-definition format war. Sure, the first HD-DVD players released in 2006 were incredibly high priced, but once early adopters ran up their credit card bill, player pricing promptly went into a free-fall. At one point, Wal-mart even sold a sub-$100 unit. On the technical side, HD-DVD made use of the 405nm blue-violet laser operating at the other extreme of the visible light spectrum than the 650nm red laser employed by standard DVDs. This allowed HD-DVD media to squeeze up to 15GB of data on a single-layer disc and 30GB on dual-layer discs, compared to the standard DVD format's 4.7GB and 8.5GB limits. But one by one, studios withdrew support in favor of the competing Blu-ray format, forcing Toshiba to wave the white flag and leaving a million HD-DVD owners feeling pretty pissed off. You might be one of them.

(Image Credit: Toshiba)

Approximate Years in Use: 2006 - 2008
Maximum Capacity: About 30GB


To the victor go the spoils, and in the high-definition format war, the victor is Sony's Blu-ray format. While Blu-ray was first introduced in 2002, the BD-ROM specifications wouldn't become finalized until 2006. Like HD-DVD, Blu-ray also makes use of the shorter wavelength blue-violet laser compared to standard DVDs. But unlike HD-DVD, Sony decided to modify the disc structure to allow for a higher value numerical aperture of the objective lens from 0.60 to 0.85. Both standard DVDs and HD-DVD consist of a 0.6mm disc with a 0.6mm protective layer, but Blu-ray media measures 1.1mm thick with a 0.1mm protective layer. The end result is that Blu-ray can store up to 25GB on a single-layer disc, at the expense of compatibility on the media assembly line. Despite the higher cost of both the media and players, Sony was able to convince studios to back Blu-ray exclusively and push HD-DVD into the same fate as Betamax.

Approximate Years in Use: 2006 - Present
Maximum Capacity: About 50GB (dual-layer)

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