History of external data storage

I’ve been in IT for longer than anyone can remember (over 40 years), and I’ve seen some amazing progress in computer technology, especially in offline data storage.

Got my IT start in the US Marine Corps way back in 1969. My first real job was 3rd shift computer operator for Marine Corps Base – Kaneohe, Hawaii.

USMC DPP-10 Kaneohe, HawaiiDPP-10    Marine Corps Base – Kaneohe, Hawaii – 1971
That’s me standing under the sign
We are in front of a “mobile data center” ready to be deployed to the field

Let me describe how far the technology has come in the last 45 years.

My computer operator job was to run daily, weekly and monthly reports for the air wing of MCB-Kaneohe, , , it included all types of reports concerning personnel, aircraft, equipment, parts, etc. , , , normal reports like you would expect.

At this juncture we used 80-column cards to store information about a record. A “record” might be a jet aircraft or helicopter, a Marine pilot or fireman, or a piece of equipment. At the end of the month I had to sort the cards and print several detail reports for Marines to manage the business.

In one application called FSA (Fleet Stock Accounting), the owners of the data brought me some 50,000 cards every month of all the detail records of their equipment and parts inventory. They were stored in some 15-20 metal trays that held approx. 3,000 cards each.

Here is the point to my story – to sort 5 characters of the cards to prepare them to print an Equipment List sorted alphabetically it would take me over ten hours just to sort the card deck so I could then print the report, , , and the computer processing part to print the report took another 2-3 hours, , , that’s 12 to 14 hours just to print a detailed Equipment Report.

How long does it take today? Just a few seconds to initiate the report, maybe a few minutes to produce and print it, , , that is if you actually want the printed version.

Every end of month I would literally spend an entire weekend in our Data Center to create the monthly reports for this application.

External data storage has evolved considerably so I thought it might be fun to take a look at how it took place. I’ve actually worked with everything you will see in the discussion below.

The beginning
Paper is where it all started. Before computers everything was on paper. Do the images below look familiar?


The first computers used punch cards
The first was the 80-column card followed by a smaller 96-column card that allowed for smaller equipment and 20% more storage on a record.

storage_punched cards

At Kaneohe we used IBM equipment – the 1401 Computer System.

storage_IBM 1401 computer system

Punched card processing took lots of equipment to do very specific things like sorting, collating or merging card decks, interpreting and printing newly punched cards, etc. Lots of equipment and a very manual, tedious process, , , but it was light years ahead of pencil and paper.

storage_IBM punch card technology

Along came tape and “magnetic media”
At first, vendors like IBM simply added a tape drive to complement their card system like the 1401 processing environment below.


Do you remember the old tape libraries? Larger organizations literally had dedicated resources just to manage the tapes.

storage_tape library

Disk storage opens up new horizons in storage capacity, speed and reliability.
Initially there were removable disk packs that increased in size over time to hold more data. Then more versatile drives came along with considerable more storage and speed and built to be more sturdy.


The diskette era
Diskettes hit the scene with the IBM System/32 around 1976. This system used an 8-inch “floppy diskette” for backup and software portability. With the introduction of the minicomputer and emphasis on business applications software to run on them small and mid-size businesses could afford to computerize their business.


You can see the trend – smaller media with more storage capacity plus they  are becoming more damage proof with simpler read mechanisms as the technology evolves.

CD and ZIP drives expand storage
The need for more external storage increases quickly as computing power increases with the PC and more software applications become available. CDs and ZIP drives fill the need for a short time.

storage_CD and zip drives

The race is on
Newer applications include more data, images, video and audio, , , applications that literally devour disk space. The need for more storage space, faster access times, and portable media is the new era of computing storage. As technology improves, the advances in these areas move forward faster.

storage_flash drive and backup drivesFlash drives started out with 16MB, 32MB and 64MB when they were first introduced. Now you see flash drives no bigger than your thumbnail that hold upwards of 512GB and there are plans to put up to 2TB of data onto a flash drive in the near future.

External backup drives like the one shown above are already storing terabyte levels of data with enormous growth expected in this area in the future.

Let me put some of this into perspective for you. In 1979 I had a tour of IBM’s General Systems Division (GSD) Headquarters and Data Center in Atlanta, GA.

I’ll never forget a sign that was in the front part as you entered the Data Center. Behind the sign were rows upon rows of disk drives followed by rows and rows of tape drives. The floor that housed the Data Center was probably around 30,000 square feet and much of it held disk drives for data storage. The sign said, , ,

storage_16GBYou have to understand, , , 16GB was huge in those days, , , but there was no graphics or video to contend with so a gigabyte of textual data was quite a lot.

Today, I carry a 64GB flash drive the size of my thumbnail with me wherever I go and my laptop has far more computing power and functionality than all of the mainframes in that IBM Data Center. Amazing evolution of computing technology, , , plus it becomes more affordable all the time. A terabyte of data storage in 1979 would have cost you over $1 million, , , today about $75.00.

The next 10 years will be an amazing experience.

11 responses to “History of external data storage

  1. Hello,

    I just read your article about the history of external data storage, and found it very interesting. As someone who uses external hard drives and USB drives on a regular basis, it’s fascinating to think about how far data storage technology has come over the years.

    I appreciated your discussion of the early days of data storage, including the use of punch cards and magnetic tapes. It’s amazing to think about how much information was stored on these early devices, and how limited their capacities were compared to modern data storage.

    Additionally, I found your discussion of the evolution of external data storage to be very informative. It’s interesting to think about how each new technology built upon the previous one, and how the need for more storage capacity drove innovation in the field.

    Overall, I think your article provides a great overview of the history of external data storage, and highlights the importance of this technology in our modern world. From floppy disks to USB drives to cloud storage, external data storage has come a long way, and it’s exciting to think about where it might go in the future. Thanks for sharing your insights on this topic!

    • Thank you Corey,
      The information I shared is actually from my own experience in working in IT since 1970, , , there has been a lot of change to be sure. Many things are much easier, , , some things more complicated and difficult.
      Best of success,

  2. I just finished reading your article about the history of external data storage, and I have to say it was a fascinating read! As someone who has grown up with modern external storage devices like USB drives and external hard drives, it’s easy to forget just how far we’ve come in terms of data storage technology.

    I was particularly interested in the section about punch cards and magnetic tape storage, as it’s amazing to think that those technologies were once cutting-edge ways to store information. It’s also interesting to see how those early storage methods paved the way for the development of newer technologies like floppy disks and CDs.

    I also appreciated the way the article touched on the impact that external data storage has had on the tech industry as a whole. The ability to store and transfer large amounts of data quickly and easily has revolutionized the way we do everything from sharing files to backing up important data.

    Overall, I found your article to be a well-researched and informative overview of the history of external data storage. It’s clear that a lot of thought and effort went into putting this piece together, and I appreciate the insights it provides into the evolution of technology. Thanks for sharing!

    refer more details about to converting VHS tapes to Digital:

  3. I hung the sign after mcb9 made it for us in chu lai. I was a founding member of dpp 10 after it was disbanded from 3rd mar div, and then recreated in 1st mar div. I drove the m109 with capt Benton as my shotgun from da nang to chu lai. The trip took us all day to travel 65 miles during the monsoon. We spend alot time outside the wire at chu lai. Had to paint over the shrapnel and bullets holes in our vans and 109s..

    • Thanks for sharing Ted. Sounds like you were one of the “pioneers” in working with Marine Corps computer systems. The van arrived at our DPP unit in Kaneohe MCB just a few months before I was transferred to Camp Lejeune which is where I would end my 4 years with the Marine Corps. It was parked outside our office building and we only used it for temporary office space while I was there.

      A few names (and characters) from our DPP-10 unit:
      Lt. DuBose
      Gunny Bill Crawford
      Top Dutil
      Sgt. Loren Foster
      Sgt. Brent Soth
      Mike Northway
      Bruce Fagrie
      Joe Rock
      Don “Gibby” Gibson
      Dave Sistek
      Randy Watson
      Frank Bonomi
      Mike Sisco (me)

  4. I was in DPP-10 back in 1974-75. Gunny Swann was the NCOIC there. We had a remote line to Camp Smith in Aiaia and ran a 600LPM line printer, if I recall correctly. I remember sorting all those cards for hours on end. Once, I made the mistake of typing on the console with both hands and looking up and still typing. That did it! Next thing I was running an 029 for several hours of my shift (a keypunch machine). MOS 4034 – IBM S/360 MSTR CMPR OPR.

    • Don, one of my best memories was the end of a month when I got a reprieve from having to work all weekend to run monthly reports. Every month-end I received 50,000 cards in trays that came over from Pearl Harbor. It was a large inventory file called FSA (Fleet stock account). It took me literally 2 hours to make one sort pass. In order to sort the cards alphabetically by five characters it took over 10 hours plus another 3 hours to run them through the CPU in order to print the report. I had to process 5 reports that took me about 40 hours to complete every month-end. My “reprieve” happened when the driver who brought them over the Pali Mountain in a trailer towed by a jeep lost control of the trailer and the cards went spilling all over the side of the mountain. No one was hurt, and it made for a nice weekend for me.

  5. Greate Effort Mike, Thank you.

  6. Great little trip down memory lane. Thank you. We’ve come a long way!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s