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The History of Data Formats

Whilst arranging my old belongings in preparation for moving home I came across an old computer cassette that I created years ago for a covertape which was to be given away with a fanzine I used to edit when I was younger. The publication focused on the retro Commodore 64 computer and every issue we would put either a 5¼" floppy disc or cassette (depending on whether or not the customer owned a floppy drive) filled with game demos on the front cover.

With this standard audio cassette filled with ancient games in my hand I glanced across at a BluRay disc on my desk and realised quite how far storage media had progressed in recent years. At the time I thought that this week it would be a nice idea to have a brief stroll down memory lane together to recap on the formats of yesteryear:

Punch Cards ' Even though they have existed for literally hundreds of years (used in the past in a mechanical capacity on textile looms, fairground organs etc), punch cards found a use in the first half of the 20th century in both data entry and storage. This information was recorded by the occurrence, or even lack of a punched holes in a certain positions on pieces of stiff card. While fairly tricky to store and awkward to use, these cards were exceptionally widely accepted and implemented in the early days of computing.

Tape formats ' For decades now tapes have been involved in digital computing and indeed still remain in use today in areas such as the backing up large amounts of information. I am specifically interested in the recording data onto regular audio tapes which was common in the mid 70's and even into the 80's. Mainly due to cost conscious computer users, a lot of computers came loaded with analogue to digital converters so binary commands could be altered into noise and stored on normal household audio cassettes. An old 56k computer modem works on much the same principal to transmit digital data down a phone line designed to carry sound.

8-inch Floppy Disc ' First commercially available in 1971 they initially had a miniscule capacity of just 79kb and were then outdated by coming of the 5¼" floppy disc when the preceding format was largely abandoned for being too large to be practical. These formats both used discs that really were floppy; their flexible nature and nominal shielding from the rest of the world made them a somewhat unsafe format to store precious data on.

3.5" Floppy Disc- Even though several alternative sizes had been developed to replace the 5¼" drive, it was the 3.5" floppy that was widely adopted and became commercially successful. Whilst the storage medium itself is floppy it is protected by a solid plastic cover. Despite being launched way back in 1984 it was extraordinarily still comparatively popular up until recently.

Floppy Replacements - The bog standard 3.5" floppy disc was limited to 1.44mb capacity and as time went on this became considered as an unmanageably small capacity. Several alternatives were subsequently invented including Flextra (1988), Floptical (1991), Zip (1994), LS-120 (19950, HiFD (1997) and UHD144 (1997) regrettably for their devopers despite the higher capacity, improved speeds and useful backwards compatibility, a series of issues resulted in these formats never truly establishing themselves as an industry 'standard'.

It wouldn't feel right not giving Refresh a little plug at this point since storage media is a huge element of our business and on items such as CD's, DVD's and Flash Drives I feel that we cannot be beaten locally on price. With regards to covering history post floppy disk, I have written several articles regarding newer optical media such as CD's and DVD's in the past which can be downloaded at www.computerarticles.co.uk.

About the Author:

Chris Holgate is a director and copyrighter of the online Ink and Toner website Refresh Cartridges www.refreshcartridges.co.uk He writes a weekly article of all things tech related.

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