The Best Storage Mediums of All Time
Storage! Easily the undersung hero of the entire computer revolution (not to mention modernity itself), we rarely spare a thought for radical improvements in information technology that made the modern world possible.
Here are our top contenders for the best storage mediums of all time:
Amate / Parchment / Paper / Papyrus
I’m going to cover amate, parchment, paper, and papyrus in the same entry. The distinctions are as follows: Amate is made from bark, typically from a ficus. Parchment is made from the prepared hides of untanned animals, papyrus is made by hammering strips of the Cyperus papyrus plant laid at right angles to each other into a single sheet, and paper is manufactured by breaking plant fibers before pressing, thereby avoiding papyrus’ tendency to separate and fall apart with repeated use. Each has advantages and disadvantages, but the big takeaway is this: Writing pretty much sucked before we invented the concept of portability.
Anybody crazy about the idea of reading the Epic of Gilgamesh on cuneiform tablets? Childrens’ libraries would be abandoned after the Little House on the Prairie series accidentally fell off a shelf, killing seven. Carving inscriptions into granite is great if you’re trying to commemorate your victory over the Sea Peoples, but it sucks if all you needed was a grocery list.
You could make a fair argument that we didn’t actually have writing until we had portable media. What’s the primary purpose of writing? To set down details and information in order to communicate them to people who aren’t present. It’s a lot less convenient if everyone has to walk 30 miles to read what you had to say in a cliff face somewhere. The advent of these materials makes it possible for scholars and scribes to collect information in greater density than ever before.
The invention of books is distinct from the invention of printing, though the latter supercharged the former. Books evolved out of a need to improve information density while simultaneously protecting the contents from rough treatment. The earliest objects recognizable as books are called codices (singular: codex). Before the invention of the codex, the length of a work was governed by the size of the scroll, and only one side of the material could be written on.
The reason the book is so intertwined with the printing press is that book-making was an esoteric art reserved for the most learned of scholars until the invention of moveable type and the widespread deployment of the printing press. Books became popular thanks to printing, but they were invented centuries before Gutenberg lived. It’s an interesting example of a storage medium being invented up to a millennia before the invention that would popularize it.
The very concept of microfilm might seem hopelessly archaic, but this technology was incredibly important to the evolution of high-density storage. The modern world’s collective interest in cataloging and recording everything under the sun didn’t start with the invention of the floppy disk. Microfilm was an analog answer to a pressing problem: How can we possibly store all this data?
Microfilm compresses information to 3-4 percent of its original size, and the compression ratio can reduce original documents to as little as 0.25 percent of their original size, depending on the method used. Microfilm allowed libraries to maintain vast collections of back issues of periodicals and magazines, or to make the text of rare editions available to anyone for the asking without risking the original media.
Okay, I’ll admit that this entry is a bit of a cop-out. I’m not really calling out one specific implementation, but I will take this opportunity to sing the praises of magnetic tape as an affordable way to back-up massive amounts of data. From the Uniservo in the 1950s to the 185TB tape announced earlier this year, magnetic tape has served as a reliable and affordable way of storing data for the vast majority of computing history.
There have been plenty of poor implementations over the years, and both reel-to-reel and VHS made it onto our list of worst mediums. However, magnetic tape has been a versatile mainstay throughout most of the last century. Portable audio players, home video players, and industrial storage solutions all came to prominence thanks to magnetic tape. Even many of the first games for the ZX Spectrum, the Commodore 64, and the Atari 800 came on tape. Without these thin magnetic strips, there is a good possibility that the information age would have been stillborn.
The 8-inch and 5.25-inch floppy disks had their 15 minutes of fame, but the 3.5-inch floppy released in the early 1980s was the perfect pocket-sized storage medium for the burgeoning home computer market. These small diskettes were sturdy, easy to store, and offered a generous amount of space for the time. After all, most people were only storing text files and small programs. Storing massive music and video libraries on your computer was something straight out of science fiction back then.
By the late ’80s, the 1.44MB diskette was standardized, and that remained the dominant removable storage device until CD burners became affordable in the late ’90s, despite some not-so-valiant attempts by the Zip and Jaz drive to unseat the humble floppy. When the very first iMac launched without a floppy drive in 1998, Apple was mocked and ridiculed by many tech pundits at the time because 3.5-inch floppies were so prevalent. History has, of course, vindicated Apple’s decision to ditch the floppy, but that doesn’t mean a few nostalgic tears haven’t been shed over the death of the floppy disk.
While some audiophiles are still clinging to vinyl to this day, the compact disc helped bring music into the digital age. While the first music CDs were released in the early 1980s, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the format started to really take off. This convenient optical format gave consumers their first real taste of music that won’t degrade after repeated listening, and effectively replaced cassettes in portable audio players and car stereos. Few can forget the impact that the CD had in the console wars, too: Sony’s decision to go with CDs instead of cartridges resulted in some of the first truly epic games, such as Final Fantasy VII.
In addition to transitioning the world to digital music, the CD also allowed average consumers to store and access massive amounts of data very cheaply. Once CD burners began to proliferate in the late 1990s, floppies and Zip disks were made obsolete, and large-scale backups were made practical for average consumers. The medium was eventually outclassed by superior optical formats and cheap flash storage, but the compact disc’s time in the limelight was definitely historically significant.
In the 1990s, a number of competing memory card formats hit store shelves. CompactFlash and Memory Stick were both released before the SD standard was introduced, but neither format saw the same large-scale adoption. In part, the early success was attributable to a favorable licensing structure, but the swift iteration of the format has kept the SD card as the de facto standard.
Over the last two decades, we saw the SD card standard grow to include a smaller footprint, larger capacity, and faster speed. Even minuscule consumer electronics could take advantage of microSD cards, and the newer cards could be used to record 4K video in real-time. The competing standards simply couldn’t offer the same bang for your buck.
Hard Drives (and Solid State Drives)
I’m going to group hard drives and solid state drives together. We’ve covered major advances in disc-based media and tape drives, but mainline personal computer storage has been defined first by hard drives, and then by NAND flash. While the two technologies are different in just about every way that matters, they overlap each other nearly completely in terms of addressable use cases. In a lot of scenarios, NAND is what we use to do the job hard drives used to do, but better than hard drives ever could.
Storage is, I think, the most underappreciated component of modern computing. Before the advent of SSDs, hard drives were regularly mocked as the slowpokes of computing that everyone needed and few people loved. SSDs have improved storage performance by more than an order of magnitude since debuting a decade ago, and are now large enough that they can be deployed as near-line storage in gaming consoles intended for the consumer market. In 2020, according to both Microsoft and Sony, it’ll be advances in storage performance that fundamentally set the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 apart from their predecessors.
It’s crazy to remember that across all of human history, no human ever heard a sound that had been previously recorded in one place and played back in another prior to April 9, 1860. We’ve had “mainstream” musical players a bit more than a century. These advances — and so much of everything that’s come between, from punch cards to the Apollo Guidance Computer itself — were made possible by advances in storage technology.
Grant Brunner wrote the original version of this post. It has since been updated.