ESG Blog: Tape Turns 60
Sixty years ago today the first tape drive was introduced to the world. Finally there was an alternative to punch cards and the modern era of data storage could begin. But it nearly didn't happen...
Mark Peters   ESG Blog: Tape Turns 60
Author: Mark Peters


On May 21st 1952 - exactly 60 years ago today - IBM introduced the world's first tape drive for data storage. If this is not evincing the 'ooohs' and 'aaahs' from you that it should, it's because you are looking at this through your 2012 eyes, and not realizing how big a deal this was in a world that was used only to punch cards.

So let's start our birthday wishes with a little historical context. In late May 1952, there were only 48 states in the US, which had Truman as its president. The country was closer, in years, to the sinking of the Bismark (1941) than to the Apollo 11 moon landing (1969)! Other forms of recording and ‘storage’ were almost prehistoric compared to today’s iPod-, Internet-, and online-driven world; a world where we play Words with Friends wirelessly all around the globe…where we’re frustrated if getting a bank balance or getting an insurance quote isn’t all-but instant, and where we can watch full length movies in high-definition and on-demand after the click of just a couple of buttons.

In 1949, when IBM’s team started to develop what-was-to-be the first tape drive, music still came on 78’s and radio was based on ‘wire recorders.’ In a thoroughly delightful write-up that IBM produced at the half-centennial of tape (“Fifty Years of Storage Innovation: Magnetic Tape and Beyond,” published by IBM in 2002, and used in developing this blog post) there are insights into the imagination and engineering innovation that went into producing the first tape drive. It almost didn’t happen because of internal disagreements [punch cards were seen as ‘it’ by many, which seems funny now but led to serious ‘religious’ debates at the time], and – when you read that the motor used to generate the actual vacuum for the vacuum columns that were the ‘special sauce’ enabling tape to be handled effectively at speed in a start-stop manner literally came from a contemporary GE domestic vacuum cleaner – you might wonder that it ever happened at all! Indeed, other handy 'tools' brought to bear on the engineering effort included baby pants (for the necessarily thin and flexible material to make a sensitive pressure-sensing case you hadn't guessed!), as well as a microscope and knife (with which an inspector would manually cut out any defects in the early tape media!).

But it did happen of course, and it immediately ushered in dramatic change. That’s no wonder when you consider that IBM’s 726 – the first marketed tape drive – was 56 times faster than the punch cards it sought to displace, while one 10.5” reel of tape could hold the equivalent data of 35,000 punch cards. While the absolute numbers might look quaint today (7,500 characters per second and 100 bits per inch on the tape) the relative improvement was nothing short of amazing. [Even when I joined the tape industry in the 1980s (working for one of the 'plug compatible manufacturer' competitors that IBM's success had by then spawned) it was still possible to 'develop' the tape, much like a photograph, and study the individual bits!] The 726 was announced as a part of the IBM 701 Defense Calculator, which the Wall Street Journal of the day said was “designed to shatter the time barrier confronting technicians working on vital atomic and airplane projects.”

Of course, since then, tape drive technology has proven itself time and again as an excellent and inexpensive form of storage. It was joined in 1956 by disk drives and tape quickly settled into a backup role. In an ever-faster world even tape's backup role has been joined by (sometimes transitioned to) an archive role. Tape became automated in the 80's once it had been re-packaged from open reels to small square cartridges, and today multiple TBs can be stored on a single piece of media - with tremendous reliability and the relatively new addition of health-monitoring, together with easy searchability and system portability via the LTFS file format. It is both a short hop and also a very long way from 1952, yet it is definitley not your grandfather's tape business anymore! Even though the original inventors might recognize the conceptual foundation of today's products, they would most likely be stunned at the 'room to grow' that exists in the world of tape technology - industry groups are already talking about 100TB cartridges, for instance!     

So, pause for just a moment. A bunch of determined individuals back in the early 1950s made a huge difference to us all. One wonders what equivalent storage 'steps forward' we are witnessing (or are in stealth mode) today, that will be looked back upon from the 2070's with equal admiration. Perhaps some form of solid-state? Or the genuine start to a different form of IT consumption that is represented by the Cloud? 

Oh, and if the arrival of the tape drive (and therfore modern data storage) isn't enough to celebrate for the one day, May 21st 1952 also saw the birth of Mr T (he of 'The A-Team' fame), who ironically has even made a foray into the storage world with a promo video a couple of years ago. I'll leave you to go looking for that one - it's bound to be archived off on a tape somewhere!   

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