That’s me (see timeline), climbing a tree. Making memories and having that memory saved to a roll of 35mm film to be later developed for a 3x5 print. Simpler times.
After sitting down as a guest on a recent podcast where I discussed how technology has evolved over my lifetime, I realized, in reflecting back, that much of my personal and professional career is marked with notable computer hardware milestones. The release of the Atari 800, Macintosh hitting the market, the iMac, the iPhone, and so on. But if you look close enough – and look off to the sides, in the shadows, there is something going on in the peripheral vision of those memories.
Much of my life has been spent happily working on projects on a multitude of different computers. I’ve created all types of campaigns, websites, and apps. If it’s digital, I’ve probably done it. And while the computers I used to work on those projects get the spotlight in my memory, the unsung hero in the stories of my mind are the different storage devices that have been there with me, helping to back up those memories. In fact, those backup devices have faithfully been chugging along and serving all of us.
Well, it’s about time that these sidekicks of computer history get their due. And so here is my tribute to the the digital storage devices that have been with me over the years. Cue the music… “Memories, like the corner of my mind…”
Off the Record
Before I get to it, I want to give a disclaimer. This is not meant to be any kind of official historical record. There are lots of gaps and many technologies that are not part of my history. So any middle school kids that are getting ready to copy and paste for your term paper, take your fingers off your command C keys (that’s control C to the Windows users in the audience.) That said, if you are looking for some good fodder for your reports, check out the references below in the attributes section. You’ll find some good material.
Adventures with Atari
OK, so here goes. Come for a walk down memory lane with Grandpa Alan. Our first stop is my childhood home. It was there that I was first exposed to a home computer by my older brother who had an Atari 800, thanks to my father’s early support of technology. At that time we were pretty limited with what we could achieve using Assembler Editor or Atari Basic. Especially because I was about 8 years old. But, anything we did create (and by we, I mean my brother) we could save to cassette tape. Here’s how it worked. We would fast forward through the tape and listen to garbled electronic noises as we looked for for a free space on the tape. Once we hit a silent spot, we would hit record and save the computer file in the form of an audio recording. For any of you out there not familiar with a cassette, you may recognize it as an ironic 80s throwback in the form of an iPhone case. But in reality it was used to record music and very occasionally code from the family Atari 800.
Not too long after that we replaced that cassette recorder with a 5.25” floppy drive. This drive used flexible flat storage media that was kind of floppy in nature, I suppose. It didn’t have much storage space by today’s standards – about 160kB at that time. But compared to those cassettes, it was lightning fast and super convenient. It was the future. We were happy. So we stuck with that for a few years and occasionally took a break to pop the cartridge into our Atari 2600 and play the game Adventure - not because it was the greatest game out there but so we could capture the invisible dot. If you played it, you know what I’m talking about. Sorry tangent - back to the memories.
As time passed our floppies got less floppy and were replaced by new hard plastic 3.5” “floppy disks” which started off with about 264kB of storage. It was the future! Those actually stuck around as the standard for quite some time. The storage capacity increased a bit but the form factor remained the same. Even though these disks didn’t have much space, it didn’t hold us back when it came to saving large files. There was software out there like Stuffit that helped us to get around the large file problem. This software allowed users to create an archive from large files, chop it up and save it onto multiple floppy disks. Some of you even remember trekking through the snow in the darkness with stacks of floppies in hand to make copies of, let’s say spreadsheets (not Photoshop at all) from the University computer lab at 3:00 in the morning - when no one was monitoring the computers. Shame on you.
Along the way I graduated from the stacks of floppies and started using external hard disks. When I first got my hands on a 1GB external drive it was like moving from a studio apartment to the penthouse. Sadly, those external drives were not the most portable devices. They were heavy, and bulky especially because they needed to connect with chunky SCSI cables where the connections were about 3 inches wide. Compare that to a half inch USB port. It was pretty cumbersome.
Soon a multitude of device formats started hitting the market, Syquest, Zip Disk, Jaz Disk, Magneto Optical. All portable, pretty quick and convenient. But the media wasn’t cheap and so they were quickly killed off by Read/Writable CD-ROMs. These shiny silver disks were cheap and portable and so they became the new standard.
As time moved on, those CDs started to get scratched up and slowly got replaced by smaller, faster solid state devices like SD cards and USB flash drives. The portable solid state drives are still often used to move files between devices that are not connected to the internet, like cameras or the occasional computer.
Today, ubiquitous internet connected devices have become the standard because they easily move files up to and down from "the cloud.” And now, we spend our lives in the cloud. Our photos, our files, our music lives on Dropbox, iCloud, and similar services. Even that photo of me climbing the tree exists in some corner of the cloud. Clouds have corners, right?
Looking back at all of those devices, through the frustration and delays of waiting for files to save, there is a fond place in my heart for them. Perhaps the fondness stems from the fact that during the times I waited for files to move from computer to storage device and back I had a quiet moment to reflect. Or perhaps it was that with each advancement there was a new gadget that went along with it. But today the cloud is merely a concept to most of us. There is no gadget, just a seemingly fictitious place in the sky filled with old and new memories. But the cloud is where we all live today. And so we may finally be using the storage of the future… Until the next thing comes out.
- Alan Ruthazer
Alan Ruthazer is the founder of Lightning Jar.