From cuniform to flash - a history of storage (photos)

From cuniform to flash - a history of storage (photos)

Summary: Here's a look at how humans have dealt with storage issues from the beginning of recorded history.

TOPICS: Storage, Hardware

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  • ZDNet UK's Rupert Goodwins takes a look at how humans have dealt with storage issues from the beginning of recorded history.

    Computing and human civilization 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
    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
    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

Topics: Storage, Hardware

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  • I know I'm dating myself but you forgot...

    Core memory (as in non-volital ferrite core) and the for runners of ROM, TROS (Transformer Read Only Storage) and CROS (Capacitive Read Only Storage).
    • RE: From cuniform to flash - a history of storage (photos)

      Floppies! And also left out piezo-wire memory, not to forget battery-backed static RAM.
  • I'll date myself, too. The first class I ever took

    on data processing required us to provide our names and other data--On punch cards. Our stacks of punched cards were over an inch thick, if I remember it right.<br><br>The college I attended didn't have its own computer, and instead bought time on a huge mainframe owned by a construction contractor.
    • RE: From cuniform to flash - a history of storage (photos)


      ...let's not forget punch tape.
  • I remember reading about flash memory early on...

    ...and the discussed applications were mainly about computers that could be turned off and back on without having to be rebooted. Nobody (that I know) forsaw uses in cameras, phones, and music players.
  • RE: From cuniform to flash - a history of storage (photos)

    C'mon now who doesn't remember Edison's pressed wax cylinders?
  • Core memory was invented by An Wang

    he was the founder of the Wang corporation. He also pioneered word processing machine and mini computers which were predecessors of PCs. My first programming job was with Wang. (That dates me also.)
  • RE: From cuniform to flash - a history of storage (photos)

    You left out hand-copied parchment manuscripts, as well as cave paintings and, oh yeah! The human brain! Preservation of knowledge by oral tradition, in addition to predating cuniform, is still in use and probably always will be.
    • True enough ...

      @Ginevra ... but oral tradition is the most error-prone of the lot. Each successive technology is substantially less error prone than the last. Each technology allows greater data density as well. However, as the data density increases, the more sophisticated the technology needed to extract the data. Without electricity, for instance, the data becomes inaccessible.
      M Wagner
  • A great piece. Lots of intermediate technology ...

    ... was left out though. I am a little surprised that no mention was made of CD/DVD technology - or emerging/experimental technologies (crystal holographics) or technologies which never took off - remember bubble memory?

    I'd like to see this covered in a little more detail and followed up by some realistic expectations for the future.

    Also, one should not neglect the problems associated with needing to move data from older to newer technologies to keep up with preservation of data over short time-spans.

    That cuniform tablet maybe 5,000 years old but the data on it is unreadable and it is meaningless in the present context.

    In order to preserve indefinitely data created today, it must be replicated and moved from one medium to another almost as quickly as it is created.
    M Wagner
    • RE: From cuniform to flash - a history of storage (photos)

      @mwagner@... It's not unreadable; you just have to have the necessary graduate education.

    Shame on whoever wrote the Headline for this article. Cuniform is incorrect, try Cuneiform!

    Sloppy editing, but at least easier to correct that correcting it on the cave wall!
  • RE: From cuniform to flash - a history of storage (photos)

    you forgot to mention the chinese printing system
  • As the article says, Johannes Gutenberg's printing press

    was, of course,a vital element in the development of information storage ?in the West?, but block printing had been used in China to print on cloth more than a millennium earlier and printing on paper preceeded Gutenberg's efforts by at least eight hundred years. Movable type, using porcelain fonts, was invented in China by around 1040, and wooden fonts, which were more durable, were used in the 13th century. By this time, however, metal fonts had already begun to be used in Korea. Sad that nothing of this appears here, thus reinforcing the impression that many [b][i]ZDNet[/i][/b] readers seem to have that Asians are not good at innovation....

  • Mis-information about Drums

    Drums were more the forerunner of core than disks, that is, in the storage heirarchy they replaced Williams Tubes etc, and were in turn replaced by cores. Drums preceded Disks, as did Magnetic Tape and Magnetic Wire recording, but the three technologies occupy different places in the storage heirarchy. In the heirarchy sense, it is over reaching to describe any of them as the forerunner of disk storage.
  • RE: From cuniform to flash - a history of storage (photos)

    Apart from my computer's hard drive, my major storage technology has been around for 2000 years: it's called a book.