March 5, 2009
The Joy of Paper Tape
There are so many reasons to enjoy Maximum PC’s“Computer Data Storage Through the Ages — From Punch Cards to Blu-Ray,” but I like the way it relates the technologies to the broader culture. For instance:
Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and magnetic tape all rose to prominence in the 1950s, and it was the latter that helped shape the recording industry. Magnetic tape also changed the computing landscape by making long-term storage of vasts amount of data possible. A single reel of the oxide coated half-inch tape could store as much information as 10,000 punch cards, and most commonly came in lengths measuring anywhere from 2400 to 4800 feet. The long length presented plenty of opportunities for tears and breaks, so in 1952, IBM devised bulky floor standing drives that made use of vacuum columns to buffer the nickel-plated bronze tape. This helped prevent the media from ripping as it sped and up and slowed down.
Likewise, audio quality of cassette tapes improved, “ushering in the era of boom boxes and parachute pants (thanks M.C. Hammer.” And “the floppy disk might one day go down as the only creature as resistant to extinction as the cockroach.”
But my favorite digital storage media, hands-down, is paper tape:
Similar to punch cards, paper tape contained patterns of holes to represent recorded data. But unlike its rigid counterpart, rolls of paper tape could feed much more data in one continuous stream, and it was incredibly cheap to boot. The same couldn’t be said for the hardware involved. In 1966, HP introduced the 2753A Tape Punch, which boasted a blistering fast tape pinch speed of 120 characters per second and sold for $4,150. Yikes!
One thing I’ve always wondered about these early paper-based computer programs is whether they were copyrighted — and whether that, in part, led to the adoption of paper. One of Thomas Edison’s clever exploitations of copyright loopholes was to take celluloid moving pictures (which weren’t initially eligible for copyright) and copy them onto a long, continuous paper print — this meant that an entire feature film could be copyrighted as a single “photograph.”
I also wonder if/why early computer programmers didn’t use celluloid instead of paper. You can move it a lot faster than paper tape, and it’s generally stronger — except, perhaps, if you punch it with lots of little holes.