History of Storage from Cave Paintings to Electrons (Infographic)

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It started as paintings inside caves, then Papyrus for early documentation, and today we are looking for DNA as a storage solution. As our hunger for storage soars, so is technologies that have evolved over the ages.

I`ve put together a brief timeline of how storage techniques have evolved. Think of it as a highlight reel from the past.

If you are more of  a visual reader then you`ll love this infographic

Infographic on history of storage

40 Thousand Years Ago

History of storage- Cave Paintings
Stone Age- Early Human Cave Paintings

Cave Paintings

Cave Paintings became a way of communicating with others. Early age cave paintings found on cave walls and ceilings, were not merely decorations of living areas because they were often located in areas that are not easily accessible.

Some theories also suggest that the paintings portrait the religious belief or ceremonies of early human being.

Surprisingly these paintings are remarkably similar around the world, with animals being most common subject. The earliest known paintings are at least 35,000 years old, at Maros on the island Sulawesi in Indonesia.  These paintings are only known resources of getting insight of early life of human being. It stores the information that nowhere can be found.

20 Thousand Years Ago

Tally stick- history of storage
Medieval tally sticks

Tally Stick

Earliest memory aid device. Tally were used to record and document numbers, quantities or even messaging, especially for financial purposes. The only historical references about Tally is made by Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) and by Marco Polo (1254-1324).

A notable example of Tally Stick is Ishango bone: is a dark brown length of bone, the fibula of a baboon, with a sharp piece of quartz affixed to one end, probably for engraving.

Some scientist believe that Tally was used to construct a numeral system. And it is one of the earliest known form of computing.

2000 BC

History of storage- Papyrus
Papyrus used for documenting around 2000 BC


Egyptian started manufacturing Papyrus as a writing material. Papyrus rolls were used to describe the last years of building the Great Pyramid of Giza. Soon Christian writers adopted the Papyrus as primary writing material.

1000 BC


Oldest paper- history of storage
Oldest paperbook

Paper took place of Papyrus for major uses of writing, printing, packaging, etc. Initially developed in China. The knowledge and uses spread through China to the Middle East to medieval Europe.

1440 AD

History of storage- printing machine
Printing Machine Build by Johann Gutenberg


The earliest printing book “Diamond Sutra” came into existence in China. The printing technology migrated to European countries through India. Johann Gutenberg from German city Mainz developed first printing press with movable wooden or metal letters. This changed the course of history, brought the revolution in the production of books. (Johann Gutenberg’s Bible).

1750 AD

Punch Card

For the first time in the history punched card were used as a recording medium. In 1725 Basile Bouchon used perforated paper tapes to control looms. By 1801 machines were developed to create paper tapes by tying punched cards in a sequence.

Semen Korsakov became the first man to use the punched card in informatics for the information store. Later Charles Babbage proposed the use of “Number Cards”.

Around 1890 Herman Hollerith invented the recording of data using a medium that could be read by the machine. Hollerith founded a company “The Tabulating Machine Company” (1890), later that became an International Business Machines Corporation (IBM).  Throughout the 19th century and till mid-20th century punched cards were used in the data processing industry for data input, processing, and storage. As of 2015, interestingly some of the voting machines still use punched cards.


Punched tape

history of storage- punch card

Perforated Paper Tape (a.k.a Punched Tape) is a long strip of paper in which holes are punched to store data. This was widely used during the 20th century for telegrams, for input to computers, and later as a storage medium for minicomputers and CNC.  As of today, punched tape use is rare, maybe still used in older military systems and by some hobbyists.



Phonograph- history of storage
Edison with his Phonograph

The idea of Phonograph was born due to Thomas Edison`s work on two other inventions, the telegraph, and the telephone.

The phonograph was built inside a metal cylinder with tin foil wrapped around it. The machine had two diaphragm and needle units, one for recording, and one for playback. When one would speak into a mouthpiece, the sound vibrations would be indented onto the cylinder by the recording needle in a vertical (or hill and dale) groove pattern.

Edison showcased the Phonograph in the offices of Scientific American, New York City. The machine became an instant hit, later Edison founded a company to sell the phonograph.



The earliest telephone invented. Valdemar Poulsen, Danish telephone engineer and inventor, patented the Telegraphone in 1898. First time ever magnetized wire was used for sound recording and reproduction. The Telegraphone received considerable attention when it was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. The few words that the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph spoke into it at that exhibition are believed to be the earliest surviving magnetic recording.


Magnetic Tape

Magnetic Tap-history of storage

By carrying further the work of Valdemar Poulsen on the magnetic wire, the German engineer Fritz Pfleumer invented the magnetic tape. AEG took up his idea and began producing a machine called Magnetophon.

Later the technology was used to record data in 1951 on the Mauchly-Eckert UNIVAC I. IBM computers from the 1950s used oxide-coated tape similar to that used in audio recording, and soon became the de-facto industry standard.


Magnetic Drum

The early form of computer memory, Magnetic Drum was invented by G. Taushek of Austria on the basis of a principle discovered by Pfleumer. The drum was widely used in the 1950s and 1960s. It formed the main working memory of the machine, with data and programs being loaded on to or off of the drum using media such as paper tape or punch cards. Magnetic Drum was later replaced by core memory.


Williams- Kilburn Tube

At Manchester University, UK professor Frederick C. Williams and Tom Kilburn developed Williams- Kilburn Tube. Tested in 1947, the tube was first high speed, entirely electronic memory. It comprises a cathode ray tube to store bits as dots on the screen. The dot lasted only for a fraction of second before fading so the information was constantly refreshed. Data was read by a metal pickup plate that would detect a change in electrical charge.

Selectron Tube

Selectron Tube was also one of the early forms of computer memory. Developed by Jan. A Rajchman and his team at the Radio Corporation of America. Development of Selectron started in 1946 as the complement of high- speed memory for the design of the IAS machine. As they found the device to be much more complicated to build than they expected, the idea was quitted and the IAS machine was forced to switch to Williams-Kilburn tube.

Later RCA continued with the work with a significantly smaller 256- bit capacity. But the project ends up expensive, as a result, they were used only in one computer, the RAND Corporation`s JOHNNIE.

Both the Selectron and the Williams tube were superseded in the market by the more compact and cost-effective magnetic core memory, in the early 1950s.


Delay Line Memory

Delay Line Memory was used on some of the earliest digital computers, now obsolete. It was a refreshable memory, but unlike random access memory delay line memory was sequential access.

Use of Delay Line memory for a computer came in vogue around the mid-1940s by J. Presper Eckert. This Delay Line memory technology was used in computers like EDVAC and the UNIVAC.

Magnetic Core

Jay forester- history of storage

The earliest form of core memory was developed. The Magnetic Core comprises tiny magnetic rings, the cores, through which wires are threaded to write and read information.

The earliest substantial work in the field was carried out by Shanghai-born American Physicists An Wang and Way- Dong Woo by creating a pulse transfer controlling device in 1949.

Several researchers in the late 1940s have conceived the idea of using the magnetic core for computer memory. But Jay Forrester succeeded in getting patent for his invention coincident core memory.

The Two key development by Wang and Forrester paved the way for the development of Magnetic core memory in 1951.

Magnetic Core memory was widely used for 20 years, between 1955 and 1975, now largely forgotten.


First hard disk- history of storage

Hard Disk

IBM introduced a Hard disk drive in 1956 with the IBM 305 computer. This drive had fifty 24 inch platters, with a total capacity of five million characters.

In 1952, an IBM engineer named Reynold Johnson developed a massive hard disk consisting of fifty platters, each two feet wide that rotated on a spindle at 1200 rpm with read/write heads for the first database running RCAs Bismarck computer. The storage capacity of the 305's 50 two-foot diameter disks was 5 megabytes of data.

The IBM 305 was the first magnetic hard disk for data storage, and the RAMAC (Random Access Method of Accounting and Control) technology soon becomes an industry standard.


Music Tape

C60 philips cassette 001

In 1962, Philips a Dutch technology company introduced Music Tape (Compact Cassette) for audio recording and playback. The Tape was originally intended to be used in dictation machines, but soon after the release of Sony`s Walkman, it became a popular medium for distributing pre-recorded music.

Music Tape was a step forward in terms of convenience from reel-to-reel audio tape recording but lacked in capacity and speed.

In the 1980s, the cassette became a cheap alternative of floppy disks as a storage medium for programs and data.



IBM researcher Robert H. Dennard Invents Dynamic Random Access Memory (DRAM) cells, one-transistor memory cells that store every single bit of information as an electrical charge in an electronic circuit.

Since then capacity was increased thousands of times and access time was reduced drastically.


Twistor memory

Twistor memory, developed by Bell Labs, is similar to core memory, formed by wrapping magnetic tape around a current-carrying wire.

The first commercial use of Twistor memory was in their 1ESS switch which went into operation in 1965. Twistor remains useful only for a short period during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Later all earlier memory systems were replaced by semiconductor memory.


Bubble Memory

The Basic idea behind Twistor Memory led the way for the development of bubble memory.  The Bubble memory uses a magnetic material to hold small magnetized areas, known as bubbles.

Bubble memory was invented by Andrew Bobeck in 1970. Due to slow access time, the bubble memory remained useful only for a brief time.


8’’ floppy

earliest Floppy disk- History of storage
Qume Data Trak 8 inch floppy disk drive with the diskette. Circa 1979, 1.2 MB.
Photo by Michael Holley, July 2007

Floppy disk is a data storage device, composed of a circular piece of thin, flexible magnetic storage medium enclosed by a square or rectangular plastic wallet.

In 1971, IBM first introduced a read-only 8 inches (20 cm) floppy with a capacity of 80 kilobytes. The first disks were designed only for uploading into the controller of the Merlin (IBM 3330) disk pack file. So the earliest floppy was used as alternatives of the data storage device.


5,25’’ floppy

IBM engineers led by Alan Shugart developed the smaller 5.25-inch floppy disk. The 5.25-inch floppy disk was born because an 8-inch floppy disk was too large to fit in desktop computers. This new floppy disk holds 110 kilobytes and was cheaper than 8-inch floppy disks.

Till this time, only one side of the floppy disk was used. In 1978, a double-sided 5.25-inch floppy disk was developed. It increases the capacity to 360 kilobytes.



Compact disk- history of storage

A compact disc is an optical disc to store digital data, originally for storing digital studio. The idea of CD was is older than the 1980s. In the 1960s, James T. Russel had the idea to use light for recording and replaying music. The idea led to the invention of optical digital television recording and the playback machines in 1970, but the idea didn`t really blow the world. In 1975 representative of Philips visited Russel at his Lab. They downgraded his invention but they put millions of dollars in the development of the CD. Later altogether Sony and Philips launched the Compact disc in 1980 named Red Book. Soon Red Book became industry standard for an audio CD.

In 1982 Sony launched the first CD player called Sony CDP-101. It was able to play audio CDs and priced 625 US dollars.


3, 5” floppy

Unlike the previous square outlined floppy, the new 3.5-inch floppy disk was rectangular and had their rigid case`s slide in place metal cover. This design had a significant advantage against unintended physical contact with the disk surface. When the disk was inserted, a part of the drive moved the metal cover aside, giving the drive's read/write heads the necessary access to the magnetic recording surfaces.

Like 5.25-inch floppy disks, 3.5 inches also went through several improvements. Earliest designed offered in a 360 KB single-sided and 720 KB double sided double- density format.  A newer improved 1440 KB floppy was introduced in the mid-80s. IBM used it on their PS/2 series in 1987.



The CD-ROM, an optical data storage medium developed by using the same physical format as the audio compact discs. The capacity was enlarged as CD-ROM is encoded at the near-microscopic size.

The standard CD-ROM holds approximately 650-700 megabytes of data, although data compression technology allows larger capacities. In 1985, the yellow book standard for CD-ROM was established by Sony and Philips.



Sony introduced Digital Audio Tape (DAT or R-DAT) a signal recording and playback medium. In appearance, DAT was similar to compact disc, but the technology of DAT is closely based on that of video recorders, using a rotating head and helical scan to record data.



Digital Data Storage (DDS) was evolved from DAT technology. It was a format for storing and backing up computer data on magnetic tape. In 1989, Sony and Hewlett Packard defined the DDS format for data storage using DAT tape cartridges.



Magneto-Optical is an optical disc format that uses a combination of optical and magnetic technologies. A special Magneto-optical drive is required to read these discs. It consists of a substrate medium upon which a ferromagnetic material is applied, originally crystalline in nature however metal alloys are used today.



Minidisc- history of storage
The Sony MZ1 was the first MiniDisc player, released in 1992.

MiniDisc (MD) technology was announced by Sony in 1991 and introduced on January 12, 1992. It is a disc-based data storage device for storing any kind of data, usually audio. MiniDisc was targeted as a replacement for analog cassette tapes as the recording system for Hi-Fi equipment. That became a brief format war ended when DCC was phased out in 1996.

MD Data, a version for storing computer data was announced by Sony in 1993, but it never gained significant ground, so today MDs are used primarily for audio storage.



Digital Linear Tape (DLT) is a de facto standard for magnetic tape technology used for computer data storage. It was invented by Digital Equipment Corporation and was purchased by Quantum Corporation in 1994, who currently manufacture drives and license the technology.


Compact Flash

CF- history of storage

CompactFlash (CF) uses flash memory in a standardized enclosure to store data. CF comprises both memory and controller, thus it can be read by older devices as well.

Flash memory is more robust than disk drives and consumes 5% of the power required by small disk drives. They can be used in laptops, desktops, digital cameras, and a wide variety of other devices.


In late 1994 Iomega introduced a medium-capacity removable disk storage system named the Zip drive.  The Zip holds all the convenience of 3.5” floppy, but stores much more data. Zip is quicker than a standard floppy drive, the earliest Zip had a data transfer rate of 1mb/sec.

Zip also introduced media access protection via a password. Like write protection, this is also implemented on the software level.



DVD- history of storage
The backside of a Sony DADC-manufactured DVD

DVD is a bigger, faster CD that can store large video films, than CD audio, still photos, and computer data. DVD is the new generation of optical disc storage technology.

DVD replaced all laserdisc, videotape, and video game cartridges, and could eventually replace CD and CD-ROM. DVD is widely adopted by all major computer hardware companies, and all major movie and music studio.

In 2003, six years after the introduction, there were over 250 million DVD playback devices worldwide.


Toshiba launched SmartMedia to compete with intel`s obsolete MiniCard and SanDisk`s wildly praised Compact Flash in the summer of 1995. Originally the SmartMedia was named Solid State Floppy Disk Card (SSFDC).

SmartMedia consists of a single NAND flash EEPROM chip embedded in a thin plastic card. The primary difference was the lack of a built-in controller in the card, which kept the cost down. Modern computers, both laptops, and desktops have SmartMedia slots built-in, but this is becoming less common as SmartMedia becomes less common.

Phasewriter  Dual

The  Phasewriter Dual (PD) was introduced in 1995 by Panasonic but soon it replaced by CD-ROM and later by DVD. PD was the first generation of optical storage devices. Some of the first-generation CD-ROM drives were compatible with PD.

But since 2001 the PD discs and PD-drives became obsolete.



Sony developed the Advanced Intelligent Tape (AIT) based on the earlier Digital Audio Tape format. It is a computer storage magnetic tape format that has fourth times larger storage capacity than DAT. The AIT was used as a backup system only.


A compact Disc Rewritable, or CD-RW, is a rewritable version of CD-ROM. A CD-RW drive can write about 700MiB of data to media around 1000 times. The number of times CD-RW can be rewrite varies with the quality and manufacturing technique employed. A variation of UDF formatting allows CD-RWs to be randomly read and write but limits the capacity to about 500MB.


Multimedia card


Unveiled in 1997 by Siemens and SanDisk, the Multimedia Card (MMC) is a flash memory card standard. It is based on Toshiba`s NAND- based flash memory and is therefore much smaller than earlier NOR- based memory.

MMC was more or less downgraded due to SD cards, but still significantly useful because MMC can be used in any device which supports SD cards. A handful of companies, most notably Nokia, still support MMC exclusively.


Memory Stick

In October 1998, Sony launched the Memory Stick a removable memory card format. Typically, used as storage media for a portable device, that can easily be removed for access by PC. For example, Sony digital cameras use Memory Sticks for storing image files. With a Memory Stick reader, a user could copy the information form the stick to the PC. Memory Stick can also be connected to PSP.

The MMC came in size from 4MB up to and including 128 MB. Later Sony introduced a double-sided memory stick (similar to floppy disk) to increase the size of the stick. But the format was fairly unpopular. However, Lexar still manufactures the 256 MB Memory Stick select.



A Microdrive, developed by IBM, is actually a mini version of hard disk in the format of a CompactFlash- Card. The first generation of Microdrives had a capacity of 340 MB, which was used by NASA. The next generation was with a capacity of 512 MB and 1 GB.

Microdrives are usually used in PDAs and digital cameras.


USB key

USB flash drive, essentially NAND-type flash memory integrated with a USB interface, used as a portable data storage medium. USB Flash Drive are also known as "pen drives", "thumb drives", "flash drives", "USB keys", "USB memory keys", "USB sticks", "jump drives", "key drives","vault drives" and many more names. They are also sometimes miscalled memory sticks (a Sony trademark describing a different type of portable memory).

SD card

SD card- history of storage
First SD card

Secure Digital ( also known as SD) was developed based on Toshiba`s MMC format with added DRM encryption features and allows faster file transfers. Typically, an SD card is used as storage media for a portable device, in a form that can easily be removed for access by a PC.

SD card is the currently most popular format, supports PDAs, with Dell, palmOne, HP, Toshiba, Sharp, and others. Digital cameras tend to support SD cards, as well.


Blue- Ray

Blu-ray - history of storage
Blu-Ray Disc

Blu-ray Disc is next-generation optical disc format meant for high definition video (HD) and high data storage and is one of two competing standards for HD optical media.

Blu-ray is named after the shorter wavelength blue laser, additionally, it allows it to store substantially more data than on the same sized disc than DVD which uses a longer wavelength red laser.

One single-layer Blu-ray Disc (BD) can hold about 25 GB or over two hours of HD video plus audio, and the dual-layer disc can hold approximately 50 GB.

Blu-ray was jointly developed by a group of leading consumer electronics and PC companies called the Blu-ray Disc Association (BDA), which succeeded the Blu-ray Disc Founders (BDF).

xD-Picture card

xD-Picture (extreme digital) Card, developed and introduced by Olympus and Fujifilm in July 2002. . xD cards are used exclusively in Olympus and Fujifilm digital cameras, and are available in a range of sizes, from 16 MB to 1 GB. They primarily compete with formats such as SD, CF, and Sony memory sticks.

Modern computers, both laptops, and desktops, rarely have built-in xD slots even when other formats are supported, due to the general lack of popularity xD suffers from. However, PCMCIA and CF adapters are available for xD-Picture cards, enabling them to be used in readers and cameras which do not have native support for the xD format.



HD-DVD (High-Density Digital Versatile Disc) is similar to Blu-ray disc, developed as one of the standards for high-definition DVDs.  HD-DVD has a single-layer capacity of 15 GB and a dual-layer capacity of 30 GB. Toshiba has announced a triple-layer disc is in development, which would offer 45GB of storage.


Cloud-Based Services

Amazon Web Services is launched in 2006. It introduced a number of web services, including Amazon Elastic Cloud 2 (EC2) and Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3). EC2 allowed users to rent virtual time on the cloud to scale server capacity quickly and efficiently while only paying for what was used. The use of the cloud eliminates the need for a company to maintain a complex computing infrastructure on their own. Additionally, it saved space and hassle in the form of less onsite server room square footage.

Dropbox is founded in 2007 by Ferdowsi and Drew Houston. Dropbox was designed as a cloud-based service used for convenient storage and access to files. Users could upload files via the web to Dropbox’s vast server farms, and could instantly access them on any of their devices or computers that had the Dropbox client installed.



holographic- history of storage

The Holographic storage, much like what GE is working on would allow data to be encoded on many layers of tiny holograms. It is said that disk derived from this technology will last for 30+ years.


Researchers are working on DNA technology that will allow us to store data in strands of synthetic DNA or Plant DNA. They have found that DNA has the huge potential of storing massive data. They could replace mammoth-sized data centers.

The Future

Quantum Storage

Quantum storage future- history of storage
Quantum storage solution for computer storage

Data storage could one day be so tiny that, not even a super microscope can sniff it out. A single bit of information could be encoded on a quantum mechanical system, such as an electron decipherable by a quantum computer.

About the Author: John Harris

With a decade of experience in data recovery, John Harris, Senior Editor at Remo Software, is your go-to specialist. His focus includes partition management, Windows solutions, and data troubleshooting, delivering insightful content that serves both users and search engines. John's expertise shines through in illuminating blog posts, untangling data loss intricacies across diverse storage platforms.…