back to article Tracking the history of magnetic tape: A game of noughts and crosses

America began its love affair with tape following WWII, when Jack Mullin, serving in the US Army Signal Corps, dropped in on German radio broadcaster Bad Nauheim and returned home with two portable Magnetophons and 50 reels of tape. News of his 1947 Hollywood equipment demos reached entertainer Bing Crosby who recognised the …


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  1. Blacklight


    Marvelous article, but missing the marvel that was the Sinclair Microdrive! Where else could you tease out a few more K of storage by stretching the tape? :)

  2. Cratig


    Fantastic written article.

    Bring on part 3!

    Thank you

  3. Lottie

    Fantastic article!!

    I really enjoyed reading this, but I do hope that the next article will cover the decorative aspects of tape.

    In the late 80's/ early 90's, Memorex et al were the key decorators of trees, roadsides and central reservations.....

  4. ForthIsNotDead


    What a FANTASTIC article. This author really knows his stuff! Loved it!

  5. Adam 1

    More please

    Dear Reg,

    More like this please. Thanks

  6. stu 4

    1996 data storage on video cassette

    anyone else have this ?

    I remember getting it around 96 or so for my PC.

    Basically an ISA card, which then connected via composite video into your VCR.

    It recorded the data visually on the VHS tapes as black and white squares.

    At the time my HD was 2GB, and it allowed me to back it all up on one VHS tape.

    Considering that HDs cost a fortune then (I'd bought my P90, 16MB memory, 2GB HD for 1800 pounds the year before).

    Ah here it is:

    A bit harsh - I found it pretty good at the time considering there was no cheap alternatives.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: 1996 data storage on video cassette

      I remember it, I couldn't afford it and was given a second hand tape drive of some sort, possibly an early encarnation of DAT. I was the envy of my friends. Admittedly most of my friends were massive nerds, as they are to this day.

    2. Thomas Allen

      Re: 1996 data storage on video cassette

      The Alpha Micro 1072 and other AM models used standard VHS videotape for backups,

    3. Jan 0 Silver badge

      Re: 1996 data storage on video cassette

      Back in 1996 I remember using an awful device called a Metrum that stored prodigious volumes of data on VHS cartridges. However, they made Exabyte tapes look reliable, if puny. For reliable, high volume data storage we used a Sony D1 (119 GB on a 6 lb 3/4 inch tape cartridge!)

      In the analogue domain, there was a nifty Pulse Code Modulator from Sony that would record audio in high fidelity, digitally, on VHS tape. The PCM unit was about the same size as a VHS VCR! By 1996 DAT recorders has made it obsolete.

      I still keep a TEAC X000R reel-to-reel recoreder that I bought secondhand in 1996 for those occasions when I want to listen to 1980s and '90s Peel programmes.

      1. Pristine Audio

        Re: 1996 data storage on video cassette

        More commonly PCM digital recordings were made using Beta rather than VHS (better picture quality = greater reliability), with different PCM units built for PAL and NTSC systems. (I believe 44.1kHz was chosen as the sampling rate for CDs as it divided equally well for use on both 50Hz and 60Hz systems, just as 78rpm or thereabouts was judged a suitable compromise for records decades earlier).

        If you view one of these tapes what you see is a series of bar-code-like stripes on the screen across a number of columns. Digital data, stored visually in the analogue domain. You've got to love it!

  7. M_W


    Excellent article and really brings back some memories. Cheers!

  8. earl grey

    Stiction anyone?

    Where's that pack of reflective markers when you need them? Who actually remembers how to roll out a crease in a tape?

    Thanks....lots of memories stored there.

  9. User McUser

    "each reel could store 1.5 million characters (224kB)"

    1.5M characters stored in 229,376 bytes is 1.2 bits per character, which seems awfully low to me...

    Surely 1.5 million characters is 1.43 MiB?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "each reel could store 1.5 million characters (224kB)"

      Assuming that everyone who talks about data and/or states bytes or bits is talking binary and therefore all figures are x1024:

      1.5 * 1024 * 1024 = 1572864 chars

      224kB = 229376 bytes

      1572864/229376 = 6.857 bits per char, which sounds as close to 7 bits per char as makes no odds, which sounds fine to me.

      1. Stoneshop

        Re: "each reel could store 1.5 million characters (224kB)"

        1572864/229376 = 6.857 bits per char, which sounds as close to 7 bits per char as makes no odds, which sounds fine to me.

        You're calculating bytes per char, not char per bit.

        229376 bytes would be 1835008 bits, if we're talking 8 bits per byte.

        So 1572864 chars in 1835008 bits would be 0.857 char per bit.

  10. Neill Mitchell

    Cute recorder

    Anyone else think the IBM Selectric typewriter's companion tape recorder looks like a jug eared robot with missing teeth?

  11. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    *no* surprise GCHQ is still using tape.

    After all when you're spying on the whole internet and want to keep plenty of evidence on everyone indefinitely what you going to use?

    I keep coming back to one simple point.

    How many parts have to fail to render reading an HDD very tough to read out?

    How many users have the skills to repair it if it happens?

  12. Sporkinum


    Looking forward to shoving the qualstar tls tape library off the room of the hospital. 6 AIT drives, and stored 360 tapes. When a drive would fail, it would eat the tape. Had a nightmare migrating all the data off it to disk. We mounted a webcam in the case to watch the robotics and drives, so we could see if something failed/got stuck.

  13. LAGMonkey

    no more tape in SOHO?

    I would kill to have an affordable tape solution at home.

    I'm increasingly worried about the recover-ability of my RAID (remember folks... RAID is NOT backup) and i cant think of any logistically feasible way to back up 9 TB of stuff.

    Anyone have any pointers?

    Ebay throws up some the odd LTO drives and now thanks to this article I'm looking at AIT5...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: no more tape in SOHO?

      If you've got that much and you need recoverability, you could use two parity disks, as better belts and braces to make an effort to put off the necessity of hardware failure causing requirement for a recovery.

      As for storage, depending upon what you're backing up, you may be able to get 9TB de-duped right down to the state where it will fit on a single 4TB backup disk, store the backups on this and have an external duplicate disk which you leave in the garage/at work/in the car/somewhere else away from home.

      Even if you need to have two disks in a portable array, it'll still be cheaper than a tape system.

      Sad really because I do love a good tape drive, but over the years in backup I've come to realise that tape and home don't match. I used to have a 10xDLT7000 tape robot at home, but I just can't justify the expense of a tape drive (and the requisite spare to keep offsite) as well as the tapes.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: no more tape in SOHO?

      Oh and don't bother with AIT, it's helical scan and therefore prone to not reading tapes from other drives.

      DLT Is the way to go, but I'd be suspicious of a second hand tape drive - you just don't know what environment it's been kept in and it makes a big difference.

      1. LAGMonkey
        Thumb Up

        Re: no more tape in SOHO?

        Thanks AC (assuming you are the same as above you)

        I do have room for double parity at the moment but then that removes my hotspare. I guess ill have to double up on the HP micro-servers for increasing pool space instead of throwing in another drive.

        Incidentally... anyone with a HP micro-server N36L, N40L or N54L and wants to increase their drives to 5 or 6 should really look at the following post which relates to a BIOS "hack"

        Its supposed to allow full SATA-II 3Gig instead of 1.5Gig speeds as well as hot-plug ability to ALL drives (the Mirco-server is officially unable to hot-plug).

        Ill be performing the modification once i get back home.

        1. defiler

          Re: no more tape in SOHO?

          Single parity and no hot-spare? You're probably as well to spin it up to RAID6, consume the hot-spare, and know that if a drive fails you don't have that rebuild time before you're protected again.

          That's the way I looked at it for myself, at least.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: no more tape in SOHO?

          I would tend to agree with @defiler that a hot spare in your case is better used pre-spun up as a parity disk. The thing with hot spares is mainly that you don't know where you're going to need them in a big array, whereas you know exactly where you'll need it.

          Of course, it's worth weighing up MTBF and the chances of an identical batch of disks spun up on the same day failing around the same time. The big killer with this is when your brand new array throws a disk from a RAID set while it's rebuilding the set because an other disk failed. If you can afford it, in your situation I would be tempted to have a spare disk in a drawer, so that it can be slotted in when needed. Actually what I tend to do is just order another when it's needed, but I have good (tested) backups.

          Incidentally my home lab is two N40Ls with 8GB (shortly to be 16GB) each, I'll check out the link, sounds good.

    3. Solmyr ibn Wali Barad

      Re: no more tape in SOHO?

      Cheap tape is a waste of money. Especially helical scan types, which have 50-50 chance of reading their own backups during the first year and nearly zero after that. DLT was good up to 7000 - and that is way too old now.

      I would go for LTO-4 full-height version. Best compromise between price, reliability and capacity.

  14. PeterO

    Technology Dead End

    In the 1950s and 1960s Elliott Bros. used what was called "Magnetic Film" for the backing store on their 405 and 803 computers.

    An 803 with three film handlers is shown here:

    Operating handlers are show in the segment between 1:10 and 1:30 in this Pathe news reel:

    From Wikipedia:

    Optional mass storage is available on an unusual magnetic tape system based on standard 35 mm film stock coated with iron oxide (manufactured by Kodak). At the time this was in use by the film industry to record sound tracks. Elliott's factory at Borehamwood was close to the Elstree film studios which explains the use of the 35mm sprocketed media. The 1000 foot reels held 4096 blocks of 64 words per block (4096 x 64 x 39 = 10,223,616 bits, or the equivalent of about 1.27Mbytes).

    Although we have a Film Handler in good condition at The National Museum of Computing we don't have the cabinet full of logic boards (called the "Film Controler") needed to interface the handler to the 803 CPU.

  15. abwilson


    > Bing Crosby gave Les Paul an early production model and the musician went on to invent sound-on-sound recording.

    Les Paul did his first sound on-sound-recording using a pair of disc cutting lathes he'd built himself before Bing Crosby ever gave him the tape machine.

    1. Daedalus

      Re: Sound-On-Sound

      >> Bing Crosby gave Les Paul an early production model and the musician went on to invent sound-on-sound recording.

      >Les Paul did his first sound on-sound-recording using a pair of disc cutting lathes he'd built himself before Bing Crosby ever gave him the tape machine.

      Exactly right. The lathes were based on flywheels from Cadillacs. Les went on to "invent" the "Les Paulverizer" which he claimed could multiply anything or anybody, allowing him to play many parts at once (and, in typical 50's humour, allowing his wife to vacuum all the rooms in the house at once). Later still he made the Les Paulverizer part of his stage act, using some offstage wizardry to let him record what we now call "loops" and stack them up. A great individual, a real American one-off. Sorely missed.

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