Computer Storage History: From Magnetic Tape to the Cloud

As computers and other technological devices have rapidly evolved over the past century, so, too, have the means we use to store the data we create for or with these machines. From the early days of punch cards and magnetic tape to modern solid-state drives and cloud storage, the way we save and retrieve data has undergone a massive shift. With improved computer storage came more powerful and efficient computing systems, which have completely transformed the way we live our lives. From databases that store our medical information and make health care faster and more efficient to smartphones and apps that let us connect with people and share information all over the world, computers and computer storage are all around us, influencing our lives in ways big and small. The timeline of computing is filled with accomplishments that made this possible, and it remains to be seen what new technology will change the world next.


Magnetic Tape: Fritz Pfleumer, a German engineer, invents a magnetic tape that can be used to record sound.


Magnetic Drum: Austrian inventor Gustav Tauschek places magnetic tape onto a rotating drum, creating the magnetic drum. The earliest computers would use magnetic drums for their internal memory.


Williams Tube: Named for British inventor Freddie Williams, the Williams tube, built from a cathode-ray tube, becomes the first form of random-access digital storage.

Selectron Tube: The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) develops the Selectron tube, which uses a vacuum tube to store digital data. The Selectron tube is more efficient and more reliable than the Williams tube, but it’s much harder to produce.


Delay-Line Memory: American electrical engineer J. Presper Eckert develops a form of computer storage that stores information as pulses that travel through a wire.

Magnetic-Core Memory: Created by Chinese American engineer An Wang, magnetic-core memory uses rings of magnetic material with wires threaded through them to create a magnetic field. This became the dominant form of data storage technology on the market for decades.


Hard Disk: The IBM 305 is the first computer to include a hard disk, which uses a rotating disk of magnetic material to store information.


Cassette Tape: Philips introduces the cassette tape at a trade show in Berlin. These magnetic tapes, most well-known as music storage devices, also would be used as an affordable way to store data for personal computers into the 1980s.


DRAM: Electrical engineer Robert H. Dennard invents Dynamic Random Access Memory, a type of random-access memory that stores data as an electrical charge in a circuit.


Twistor Memory: This short-lived technology, developed by Bell Labs, uses magnetic tape wrapped around a length of electrified wire.


Bubble Memory: Andrew Bobeck, a researcher at Bell Labs, creates a computer storage format that uses “bubbles” of magnetized space on a thin piece of magnetic material to store bits of data.


8-Inch Floppy: IBM creates the first floppy disks, encasing a large disk of magnetic material in a plastic shell.


5.25-Inch Floppy: Shugart Associates introduces the 5.25-inch floppy disk, which quickly becomes the dominant format.


CD: The first compact disc is created. This optical data storage format could hold 74 minutes of music.


3.5-Inch Floppy: The 3.5-inch floppy disk is invented, packing the same amount of storage as a 5.25-inch floppy into a smaller disk while protecting it better with a harder plastic shell.


CD-ROM: The introduction of the CD-ROM (short for Compact Disc, Read-Only Memory) allows for optical storage of larger amounts of data.


DAT: Sony develops the Digital Audio Tape, which looks similar to a smaller version of a cassette tape but can store higher-quality digital audio.


DDS: Building on the DAT, Digital Data Storage cartridges can hold larger amounts of data in a variety of formats.


MOD: The Magneto-Optical Disk mixes optical and magnetic storage, storing data magnetically but using a laser to read and write the data.


MiniDisc: Sony releases the MiniDisc as a replacement for cassette tapes, offering the benefits of a CD in a smaller format.


DLT: Digital Linear Tape improves the capacity of tape-based storage.


CompactFlash: SanDisk creates the CompactFlash format, one of the first to use flash memory. Flash memory has no moving parts and can be erased and rewritten many times.

Zip: Iomega releases the Zip disk, which couples a similar design to that of a floppy disk with vastly increased storage capacity.


DVD: Digital video discs, or DVDs, are developed as an optical storage medium. DVDs can hold much more data than a CD or magnetic tape, boasting a capacity of up to 4.7 GB.

SmartMedia: Toshiba releases the SmartMedia flash memory card.

Phasewriter Dual: Panasonic introduces the Phasewriter Dual rewritable optical disc.


AIT: Sony’s Advanced Intelligent Tape format builds on the DAT while greatly increasing storage capacity.

CD-RW: The first rewritable CD, the CD-RW, is invented, giving people the ability to save, modify, and erase data on a CD.


MultiMedia Card: The MultiMedia Card, or MMC, jointly developed by SanDisk and Siemens, becomes a new flash memory standard for portable digital devices.


Memory Stick: Sony releases the Memory Stick flash memory format for its digital devices.


Microdrive: IBM creates the Microdrive, the smallest hard disk drive ever made.


USB Key: Also commonly known as a flash drive or a thumb drive, the USB key gives people a high-capacity storage tool that’s easy to carry around, plugs into any USB port, and transfers data quickly.

SD Card: The SD card builds on the MMC format while increasing data transfer speeds.


Blu-Ray: Blu-ray disc technology is developed, improving on DVDs by offering far greater storage capacity that can hold a high-definition movie.

xD-Picture Card: The compact xD-Picture card is released for use with digital cameras.


WMV-HD: Microsoft’s WMV-HD video compression format helps to decrease file sizes and increase load speeds for digital videos.

HD-DVD: The HD-DVD format is released as the HD successor to DVDs. This sparks a format war, with Blu-ray emerging as the victor.

Holographic: Holographic memory is an emerging technology involving the storage of data using photopolymers or crystals.