A short history of data carriers

Many ways of storing information can be found in human history. An overview of data carriers.

When you hear the word data carrier, you might think of a USB stick or a memory card. Those are relatively modern examples. Human historiography goes much further back with ways of storing information that may now seem primitive, but often show surprisingly little ‘data rot’ and last a long time – especially if you compare it with more modern means.

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Cave painting: an Indonesian warthog
A warthog in Indonesia is the oldest known cave painting. Probably intended to tell a story about hunting trophies. The painting is still clearly visible. Even the bushy back hairs can be seen. Shelf life: about 45,000 years

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Cuneiform: rock hard data
About five thousand years ago, a writing system emerged in the Middle East that you scratched into clay with a reed. At first many pictograms were used, later language became more abstract with ‘nail-like’ notches. People used it, among other things, to do accounting. Many (hardened) clay tablets are still in good condition. Shelf life: five thousand years, probably much longer

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Papyrus: the oldest paper
Nowadays we know the cyperus papyrus mainly as a plant for the pond. Five thousand years ago, its stems were pressed into a kind of paper: papyrus. Documents from Ancient Egypt contain medical practices, mathematical calculations and folktales. Unfortunately, papyrus does not tolerate moisture well: in Europe almost everything has been lost. About two thousand years ago, parchment and later paper supplanted papyrus. Shelf life: several thousand years under dry conditions

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Oil painting: the snapshot of the renaissance
Although painting on buildings, ceramics and other materials was already done long before, oil painting broke through in Europe in the fifteenth century. Painters accurately capture the world around them on canvas and experiment with techniques. Initially the work is often religious in nature, later more everyday scenes and portraits appear. Shelf life: five hundred years through restoration

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Punch card: cheese of holes of information
In 1790, the French inventor Joseph-Marie Jacquard developed a system to automatically weave a pattern into the fabric using a loom. It uses a ‘programmable’ cardboard strip with holes in specific places. This pattern shows how the machine weaves threads together row by row. The punch card as an information carrier proved versatile in the following two hundred years: it was used in, for example, barrel organs and in censuses before the computer took over. Shelf life: hundreds of years

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Photo: capturing the light
The first photograph with a person in it was taken in Paris in 1838. Back then, taking a photo took minutes, so moving objects – such as people – typically faded into the shot. However, this gentleman (bottom left in the picture) stood still for a while, probably to have his shoes polished. Depending on the printing technique, the shelf life differs; many photos fade within decades. Shelf life: decades, depending on the technique

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Washing cylinders: sounds from the past
Cheerful xylophone notes dance over the tones of a wind band. This four-minute piece of music was recorded around 1912 and is on a cylinder with a layer of wax in which the sound vibrations have been ‘scratched’. It can still be played with a so-called phonograph, a device the company of American inventor Thomas Edison developed in 1880. Shelf life: at least a century

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Magnetic tape: kilometers with particle collisions
A robot moves rapidly back and forth between long racks of magnetic tapes, stopping to pick up and read certain tapes. At the European particle laboratory CERN near Geneva, a large part of the raw data from the experiments is stored on tape. In 2019, the organization had 330,000,000 gigabytes of data. Tape is a relatively inexpensive way to store a lot of information. Shelf life: decades

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Floppy: flexible information
They exist in different sizes, but eventually the 3.5 inch variant became the most popular. On flexible floppies you could store games, research results and other important files. But the data could be lost relatively easily, because bits (a piece of information on the disk) changed spontaneously. Floppy’s did not have a long shelf life. Now the biggest problem is that few computers can ‘read’ them. Shelf life: about ten years

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Cassette tape: fiddling with a pencil
For years, cassette tapes were the most popular way to play music. You could even listen to your favorite artists on the go. The tape in the straps sometimes got stuck, whereby a pencil often offered a solution to turn everything properly again. Shelf life: up to about thirty to forty years

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Compact disk: the shiny disk
After the cassette tapes, the CDs became extremely popular. Handy for listening to music, but also for storing data. The shelf life varies quite a bit, depending on how the disc has been treated. Do you put it in the sun unprotected? Then it goes downhill fast. But with good quality and treatment, the lifespan increases. Shelf life: decades

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Hard drive: tipping bits
The hard disk is one of the most modern ways to store (holiday) photos, movies and files. You would think that makes it one of the most reliable as well. Wrong! Over time, a hard drive suffers from data rot, because bits change spontaneously. Shelf life: often about ten years
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