Computers cannot operate without memory. At their most basic level, computer coding is a series a 0s and 1s known as binary code. Series of binary code make up all programs, from software to operating systems. The longer the code, the more memory is needed to store it. As the computer was developing in the 1980s, storage became a point of uncertainty: should storage devices simply provide programs to operate a computer, or should the user also be able to store their own data? The floppy disk and the cartridge emerged as the two dominant forms of storage for computers of the 1980s, emboding the different schools of thought divided between writeable versus read-only memory.
Originally measuring at eight inches square, the floppy disk was the most common storage medium for personal computers from the 1970s until the early 2000s. Getting its name from the flimsy, thin casing of the diskette, floppy disks were used to store everything from operating system software to personal data. The rectangular casing of the disk housed a magnetic disk, which held data read by a computer. The first floppy disks held only 64 kilobytes of data (about the same size as a blank Microsoft Word document today) which stored both the operating system and the program.
Cheap and small, floppy disks became popular for personal computer use. Most software for personal computers was released on floppy disks. Early computers relied on floppy disks as their sole source of data storage: as such, computers could not run without at least one disk, which could contain either an operating system or program. As the personal computer developed internal memory, floppy disks became used as an installation medium and storage device. Floppy disks also allowed the user to write their own data for storage, making floppy disks the primary storage device for the average user.
Rapid developments in computer technology in the 1990s signaled the gradual decline of the floppy disk, which could not compete with the size and low cost of other storage media, such as compact disks and, later, USB flash drives.
The other popular storage medium of the 1980s was the ROM cartridge. ROM cartridges were solid, enclosed memory devices, used mostly for computer video games and simulators of the 1980s onwards. Cartridges contain read-only memory (ROM) devices, meaning that no data can be saved onto the cartridges by the user. For this reason, cartridges were often used in tandem with other storage devices, including cassette tapes and memory cards.
Cartridges were the preferred storage medium for computer video games, and were also used in a limited variety of personal computers in the 1980s and 1990s. The devices were difficult to reverse engineer, making them a favored medium for software companies. Additionally, data on cartridges normally loaded more quickly than data on disks, taking up less computer memory and making graphics run quicker. While their read-only quality limited their use in personal computing, some companies like Atari went so far as to manufacture computers based on the cartridge medium.
Cartridges were never widely used in the personal computer industry, and suffered a decline in usage after the development of the compact disk. The high cost of manufacturing cartridges also led to their diminished use in the video game industry. Despite this, cartridges are still used in a number of modern video game platforms, including the Nintendo DS console series and the Playstation Vita.
The rising popularity of home computing in the 1980s and 1990s ultimately led to the decline of ROM cartridges and the emergence of new, writeable storage media. During the 1980s, however, the future of data storage was as uncertain as the uses of the microcomputer, giving way to multiple forms of storage including the floppy disk and the cartridge.
For Further Reading:
Campbell-Kelly, Martin, William Aspray, Nathan Ensmenger, and Jeffrey R. Yost. Computer: A History of the Information Machine. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2014; Third edition.
Ceruzzi, Paul E. 2010. "'Ready Or Not, Computers are Coming to the People': Inventing the PC." OAH Magazine of History 24 (3): 25-28.
“Chapter 8: Floppy Disk Drives” [Course materials]. n.d. Retrieved from http://www.lintech.org/comp-per/08FDK.pdf
Haardt, Michael, Alain Knaff, and David C. Niemi. “The floppy user guide.” Unpublished paper, Linux User Group Luxenbourg, 2001. Retrieved from http://www.hermannseib.com/documents/floppy.pdf