While Tekserve does its best to show off the latest and the greatest, it also has a profound reverence for history. You can see it in the dozens of antique radios, mechanical typewriters, rotary phones, cabinet TVs, and Brownie cameras displayed in the store. It’s in that nostalgic spirit that we’re launching a new series of posts on the Tekserve Blog. Each one will feature an item of modern technology and trace its roots back in time – through the many twists, turns, and triumphs that shaped the products that have irrevocably changed our world and brought us to where we are today.
The woman in the black coat looked at me with tired, heavy eyes and said very little as she handed me her laptop. Setting it down on the table, I asked her how I could help. Distractedly, in a near whisper, she told me her computer no longer started up. Over the next few minutes, I ran several tests while she stood patiently, silently observing everything that I was doing. Soon, the unpleasant truth became obvious. I told her she had a failed hard drive, and asked her if she was backed up.
Instantly, her eyes sprang to life. She gave me a long, fierce, determined stare. She then firmly told me she’d dropped her computer. It happened after she’d received a phone call informing her that her husband had just died. I immediately told her I was very sorry for her loss. But then I had the worst task ahead of me – telling her the only way to try and get back the pictures and personal documents of her late husband was to try a data recovery attempt that cost almost a thousand dollars. When I did, slowly and sheepishly, she looked straight at me and the spirit in her eyes once again gave way to a weary glaze. “Okay” – she sighed and handed me her credit card.
Telling someone they need data recovery is consistently one of the toughest things I’ve had to do here at Tekserve. Nowadays, we put our entire lives in digitized files. Losing data, for many, becomes akin to losing a house, to losing everything. Data recovery requires great effort, and comes at a great expense in both time and money. Even then, there’s no guarantee it’ll work, even though it often does.
How did it get this way? How did we come to trust a small set of magnetic platters to hold the things most important to us – our memories, our work, our creations and sources of inspiration?
The history of modern data storage begins, strangely, in a time before electricity, before steam engines and photography – before the United States of America even existed. What did exist, in this quaint agrarian world, was programming.
If you were tasked with making fabric in the early 18th century, you’d have been a little terrified. Weaving thread by hand was hard and limited – even with your best efforts you could only produce fabric the length of your arm span. Looms, on the other hand, were complicated instruments with a dizzying array of parts – there was the warp beam, the heddles, the shuttle, the reed, the takeup roll, the harnesses, and more. Setting up a loom required a lot of care and an iron stomach for tedium.
Then, in 1725, a young French textile worker named Basile Bouchon ingeniously came up with a way to automate the process. He invented a loom that could be controlled by perforated paper tape with punched out holes. The pattern of punches would ultimately determine the pattern of fabric produced. This was huge – a machine could literally be given instructions on paper that it would reliably and automatically follow. Bouchon had invented a machine that was automated and programmable.
Punched paper became all the rage in the 19th century, ending up in everything from player pianos, to telegrams, to the 1890 United States Census – and it was mostly thanks to one man who transformed punched cards from plain old loom controllers to hearty information storage devices. A man named Semen.
Semen Nikolaevich Korsakov was a Russian homeopath and inventor who wanted to build machines that would “enhance natural intelligence.” His inventions included the linear homeoscope with movable parts, the linear homeoscope without movable parts, the ideoscope, and the simple comparator – among other slickly-branded devices. They were designed to search for information quickly by reading perforated materials, like punched cards or punched wood.
Nearly 60 years later, a dashing young American statistician named Herman Hollerith would perfect the use of punched cards for information storage.
Hollerith created his own punched cards with fixed, clearly labeled rows and columns that could be used to codify information. He also invented machines that would rapidly read and tabulate the data.
Prior to Hollerith, the United States Census, which occurs at the start of every decade, used to take eight years to tabulate! In other words, it would almost be time for the next census before the last census was fully finished! Thanks to Hollerith’s tabulating machines and punched cards, the entire 1890 Census was tabulated in only one year.
Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company, which would later merge and go onto become the “big brother” of 20th century computing: International Business Machines, better known as IBM. IBM’s own modified punched card would become a staple for almost all major computing applications of the first half of the 20th century – until 1956, when IBM would dramatically seal its doom…