The audio cassette tape is 50 years old

The audio cassette tape is 50 years old

Summary: Back in 1963 Philips introduced the audio cassette. But its use as a digital storage medium is almost forgotten today.

TOPICS: Storage, Apple, Hardware

When I bought the original Apple II with a 6K integer basic and 2K assembler/disassembler built-in, the big choice was between 4K of RAM or 16K. I splurged.

But the bigger problem was mass storage. A 140K floppy drive and controller cost $600 back in 1978. That was real money - and almost what the computer cost.

5 1/4 inch floppy's were still new and rare on home computers in those days. The hobbyist alternative? A Panasonic portable cassette recorder.

Even Apple distributed software on cassettes: the floating-point basic that required a 16K RAM Apple II came on cassette as did other hobbyist programs and games. And Apple wasn't the only user of cassettes as a mass storage device.

There was a serious but short-lived effort to create and spread a standard for cassette data interchange: the Kansas City Standard. Before PC networks and cheap floppies everyone had the same problem: affordable mass storage.

Audio cassette-based mass storage rode the coattails of an immensely successful consumer product boom. Prerecorded music on cassettes was being sold in 1966 and by the late 70s cassette decks were common in cars, homes and offices.

The cassette's low-cost and ready availability made it a natural for early computer hobbyists. But it was still tape: slow - 300 and 1200 baud - and not terribly reliable. You could read and write from the same deck, but data interchange was chancy.

The audiocassettes career as a data storage medium was short. The QIC or quick quarter-inch cartridge had already been invented and  rapidly dropping tape costs, cheaper floppies and small hard drives soon rendered the digital data storage audiocassette obsolete.

Today though National Audio produces 100,000 audiocassettes a day. Somebody is using them.

The Storage Bits take
My next foray into recordable magnetic media was in business school where the TI-59 calculator was the computer of choice. It had a mag card reader writer built-in that wrote to little magnetic strips smaller than a stick of gum. It was like programming in assembler.

Today the hard disk drive rules magnetic storage. But the continued success of the audio cassette on its 50th birthday points to the resilience of consumer-based storage technologies - which bodes well for NAND flash, DVD and Blu-ray longevity.

Comments welcome, as always. What was your favorite cassette mixtape?

Topics: Storage, Apple, Hardware

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  • yeppers...

    ' It was like programming in assembler.'

    indeed it was. the calculator that is. lead one to learn how to conserve coding/data space, an almost lost art now.
  • A TI guy!

    I always suspected you were a TI guy. All the cool guys used an HP-41C. Same type of magnetic storage though. Thanks for the walk down memory lane. Pun intended.
    • 15C!!

      Had both the 15C and a little later a 41CX I think. The 15C is clearly the unmatched champion of user interface design. Mine still sits on my desk..
      • nope...

        the HP-16C was. mine is still working.
  • Oh what a pain in the butt that was

    "save and pray" - back in those days, most computers used some variation of Microsoft BASIC as a de facto operating system, and the only continuity your program had was (a) you printed it out and typed it out again, or (b) you put it to cassette tape, sometimes with a direct line out (as on some Commodore PETs) or by using an acoustic coupler hooked up to the tape machine.

    The program would load back only 70% of the time, so you were a fool if you didn't print your program out! At least typing it all in again was just clerical work.

    People may consider floppies unreliable, and by today's standards they were - but boy what a relief when they came out, over tape!
  • It is little known that audio cassettes...

    ... Can easily exceed compact disc fidelity with the right tape formulation and record/play deck (Nakamichi Dragon, anyone?).

    Philips also tried, and failed, to digitize the audio tape for home use in an off-shoot called Digital Compact Cassette. By this time, though, DAT had already gained a foot hold in the professional market (and as a storage medium, no less) and CD recorders were beginning to become available.
  • I miss cassettes, damnit!

    I was a child of the 80's and I miss them.