A Personal History of Computer Storage

By Martin Jansen, Owner of Jansen-PCINFO

I’ve been working on computers for a long time.  At home, my first computer was a Commodore VIC-20.  It took some convincing to get my wife to allow me to purchase this computer since money was tight.  In the early 1980’s I was still in school and my wife was working as a music teacher at two parochial schools in Manitowoc, WI.  I finally convinced her because the VIC-20 could play games like Gorf.  An add-on to the VIC-20 was storage in the form of a cassette tape drive:

I still remember typing in peeks and pokes to recreate another simple game.

Following the VIC-20 we upgraded to a Commodore 64.  By this time third party cheaper peripherals were available, so I purchased a 5 ¼ inch floppy drive to store my data:

These floppies were single sided, which means the data could only be written on one side.

Around this time I was hired by the American Red Cross as an Emergency Services Coordinator in Green Bay.  I became their computer guy working on their Compaq Luggable computer which had a new operating system from Microsoft: Windows 1.0.  It was laughably inefficient.  The storage on the Compaq had two floppy drives:

Word Perfect was the preferred word processor for business at this time which ran by switching floppies in the drives.

At home, I was still working on the 64, but had added a 40 column monitor and a Star dot matrix printer.  I was studying for my masters degree and eventually completed my thesis using Paper Clip as my word processor.

In the early 1990’s I had transitioned from non-profit work to for-profit with AC Nielsen and was eventually hired by Employer’s Health as a Computer Analyst.  We had bought our first home and I had my first IBM compatible computer.  Hard drives were just becoming available for personal computers in the 10 and 20 Gigabyte sizes:

IDE (Integrated Drive Electronics) used flat cables to connect to the controller.  At the time, controllers were not integrated into motherboards.

At work, Employers Health became Humana and hard drives became larger over time.  I remember that computers were very expensive at the time.  I often quoted computers that were $2,500, this for 486 computer with turbo drive and a 40 GB hard drive.

5 ¼ inch double sided floppies were replaced by a 3 ½ inch disk with a hard plastic case.  Fun story: One day I was called up to the resource center.  Someone had a floppy, but the computers only had 3 ½ inch drives.  This person had used scissors to cut down the floppy so it would fit in the drive, needless to say the data was lost and the drive damaged.

IDE drives were replaced by SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment) drives and were widely available in the early 2000’s.  Hard drive capacity increased from gigabytes to terabytes.

Laptops were getting thinner, lighter and preferred by business managers.  2 ½ inch drives helped make laptops more portable.

Meanwhile, 3 ½ inch disks were replaced by CD-ROMs.  This was a great advance for IT professionals who had to install software.  Large programs like Lotus 123 would take upwards of 25 disks to install and often on the 24th disk the program would report a CRC error.  Definitely not the good old days.  CD-ROMs contained the whole program and would install faster without error.

Another huge advancement is Solid State Drives which were developed in the 1990s,  but were insanely expensive. Early SSDs were not very reliable and often failed quickly.   I started using them around 2010 when prices were more reasonable, but even then the drives had lower capacity.   The read-write capabilities, however, far exceeds mechanical hard drives with spinning disks and read-write heads.   SSD firmware is upgradable and may fix manufacturer identified problems with the drive.

Today, computers, especially laptops, are often sold without CD drives.  Excellent internet connections allow downloading of software for installation.  Or, some manufacturers offer software as a service where upgrades are done on remote servers.  The internet has made all this possible, but it is a tool.  Tools can be used to build up or destroy.

Form factors have changed in storage over the last few years.  Miniature SATA has replaced traditional 2 ½ inch drives in many computers, even in desktops:

Much smaller yet the same capacity.

The latest in storage are Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe) drives.  These are capable of utilizing 4 PCIe channels increasing read-write speeds above 500MBps.  These drives are small and come in various lengths for laptops and desktops alike:

As with all drives, capacities are increasing and prices are coming down over time.

As technology marches on, we can only expect smaller yet faster storage.  Prices for new technology are initially high, but decrease over time when the technology is widely available.