History of storage: Cuneiform tablets to flash

History of storage: Cuneiform tablets to flash

Summary: Come with ZDNet UK on a brisk stroll through the history of storage: our culture's push to give our discoveries, memories and knowledge lives and power of their own

TOPICS: Storage

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  • Cuneiform tablet

    Computing and human civilisation are useless without data storage. States and cultures have relied on it for more than 5,000 years, but recently we've become rather good at making it fast, capacious and small. Here's a canter through the history of one of our most enduring technologies.

    Cuneiform tablet
    The first systematic data storage system was the cuneiform writing system, which kicked off in around 3400BCE. Although it evolved into a complete written language, it started off as a way to count and categorise agricultural production and, inevitably, to calculate taxes.

    Made by pressing a stylus into a clay tablet, the writing could be rubbed out subsequently — or the tablet could be baked for more permanent storage.

    Thousands of legible tablets and other inscriptions survive, an impressive feat that we're unlikely to duplicate with modern technology. However, storage capacity is limited, with a single mobile phone-sized tablet maxing out at around 500 bytes.

    Photo credit: Library of Congress

  • Gutenberg printing press

    Gutenberg printing press
    The first data storage system that allowed efficient replication — with all that implies for communication and storage — in the West was Johannes Gutenberg's printing press. Although its output was not much more dense than cuneiform — and the storage medium more fragile — this one invention enabled the Enlightenment and can fairly be said to be the spark that led to all subsequent technology.

    Gutenberg invented moveable, mass-producable metal type and oil-based ink, and adapted the agricultural press to the task of producing practically infinite, perfect copies of written work. The printing press was quickly and widely adopted everywhere with the exception of the Arabic speaking world, where it was very slow to be picked up due to a combination of powerful entrenched interests among manuscript makers and technical difficulties in creating acceptable Arabic moveable type.

    Credit: Andrew Plumb/Flickr

  • Mercury delay line

    Mercury delay line
    An unusual and marginally practicable data storage system, mercury delay lines were invented for use in second world war radar systems and subsequently saw service in early computers. This one was used in the Lyon's Electronic Office computer, Leo 1, in the early 1950s.

    Mercury delay lines store information as a series of ultrasonic pulses sent from one end of a column of mercury to the other. They could store around 500 bits of information, but were difficult to drive and had to be kept in uncomfortably warm surroundings to be efficient.

    The same principle, using quartz delay lines, could be found in European colour TV sets until the early 1990s: it's also been proposed that the reflectors left by Apollo astronauts on the Moon could allow the space between it and the Earth to be used as a laser-delay storage system.

    Credit: Marcin Wichary/Flickr

Topic: Storage

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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  • Don't forget Magnetic Bubble memory invented by Bell Labs in the late sixties. It was a form of non-volatile memory. At one time, it was going to become the storage unit in every computer but falling hard drive prices destroyed its commercial potential.
  • Also the chinese and anyone with non Latin /greek characters could not adopt the press, i.e. chinese, arabic, japanese, in fact only the europeans and russians were the major civilisations to use printed books until the 19th century, prior to which the renaissance happened and enlightenment.
  • This is quite wrong in all respects.

    The history of printing is complex and China and other parts of Asia were the first to print on paper and even developed movable type.

    See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Printing

    Also the Russians are actually Europeans... Since Europe is defined as that part of Eurasia to the West of the Ural mountains. That area (West of the Ural Mountains) in the far east of Europe is where ethnic Russians first emerged and where most of them still live to this day, it is called Russia. If you talk about the modern Russian federation or the old Russian Empire or Soviet Russia then you have to include Siberia and parts of Central Asia