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Another Ancient Artifact November 3, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings, Technology.
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I had another “really old” moment with my son the other day.  My first job out of college was with Harris Corporation, and I was explaining how Harris evolved from a company called Radiation.  Back in the 1950s, Radiation got its start building telemetry equipment for the space program.  I told my son that it was very clever technology for the time, capturing real-time data from rockets and recording it on magnetic tape.

And then I got the blank look.  “Magnetic tape?  What’s that?”

Certainly we haven’t reached this point with magnetic tape, have we?  I scrambled for some common point.  Finally I settled on cassette tapes.  “Remember how we used to have those cassette tapes?  The tape in them is magnetic tape.  It’s plastic, coated with iron oxide, and you can record data and music on it.  The telemetry was recorded on tape like that, but wider.”

My son nodded in understanding, but it was clear that this was a distant memory, at best.  And why not?  He grew up in the tail end of the CD era, the last physical media we’ll probably ever know.  He manages his data online, shuttled between various devices via networks both large and small.  He still likes to buy CDs for the cover art and liner notes, but immediately rips them to iTunes and puts the CD on his shelf.

I’m proud to report that I actually have a nine-track, 6250 bpi tape.  (That’s bits per inch, by the way.  Much denser than the old 1600 bpi tapes.)

When I moved from my first job at Harris (writing compilers) to my second (researching parallel computer architectures) I dumped all my mainframe programs to tape in case I would ever need them again.  Fat chance!  I’ve never read that tape, and I’ve never had a need for a crucial snippet of PL/I to complete a project.  But I still have that tape because, well, you never know if the need will arise.  Now, I just need to track down a nine-track, 6250 bpi tape reader.  And a matching channel controller for it.  And an IBM mainframe.  And a 3270 console.  Ebay, perhaps?

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