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Early Computing: Magnetic Tapes


Learn More About the Technology

Magnetic Tape by Leah Schmidt

Magnetic tape is a storage medium that is still in use today. It consists of a plastic strip with a magnetic coating over it. The length and width of the strip has varied throughout history and depending on the function and device for which it records. Most types of recording tape are magnetic, whether they record audio, visual or computer data.

Various prototypes of magnetic storage computers began construction in the 1940's, only to be abandoned before use, often due to financial constraints. One such company was Electronic Control Company, which received a grant for the US government to build a computer with magnetic tape input and output, named UNIVAC. The owners formed EMCC after the dilution of Electronic Control, which was promptly purchased by Remington Rand, who financed the completion of UNIVAC.

UNIVAC was completed and tested in 1951, and in the same year sold to the US Census Bureau. It was the first commercial computer to feature magnetic tape storage. There were eight tape drives that stood separate from the main computer, each six foot high and three foot wide. Each drive used a half inch wide, 1200 feet long strand of nickel-plated bronze. Census data was fed into the computer, which weighed 29,000 pounds and took up an entire room. The UNIVAC used seven of the tape drives for processing, and the eighth to keep time.

IBM's computers in the 1950's quickly adopted the use of magnetic tape, and it became industry standard as a storage medium. Tapes retained their length, in the 1980's even growing to up to 3600 inches, albeit with a much smaller width.

LINCtape and DECtape were the second generation of magnetic tape storage, and were mainly used as personal storage devices. The evolution here was that these tapes were able to be written and rewritten as needed, replacing the expensive, one time use tape used prior. They were eventually replaced by diskettes, which had the advantage of a casing to protect the tape and greater speed.

While magnetic tape is an older technology, it is still in use today. Pick up any cassette or VHS tape and the same technology is used. The evolution of the technology today, however, includes a fixed plastic shell that holds the tape in place and prevents damage to the stored information; the original versions were stored on large reels that left the tape exposed.

Today, storage has become much more compact. Memory cards make it easy to store large amounts of data on something the size of a quarter. But it all started with a 1200 foot, half inch tape that was used to count the census in the 50's.

"Magnetic tape." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 27 Aug 2006, 00:22 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 29 Aug 2006.

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