The Clunky Cassette Tape...An Awesome Retro Storage Medium!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Before floppy disks, hard drives and DVD re-writers, the way to read, store and record data was via a magnetic cassette tape and tape drive. Aside from storing music, cassette tapes were an awesome retro storage medium for storing type-in game programs from the back of computer magazines. Of course, who wanted to type-in all those lines of code when you could simply record them?
Once upon a time, before the age of copyright laws, you could record game programs on tape over the air by simply recording the sound from the radio. During the 1980's, there were radio stations that would broadcast quite literary lines of code through the radio waves, allowing people to record games and software onto tape that you could then run on a computer.
If you are someone who came up in the 1980s you probably knew, or heard of these radio station shows that broadcasted software over the air. Being able to literally hook up a radio to an 8-bit home computer (such as the C64, Atari XL line, ZX Spectrum, Apple II, Amstrad) and live stream software was the earliest type of "wireless file share", and in an age before Internet it was pretty amazing!
With that said, there was the Bulletin board system (BBS) , which people used back in the mid-1980's to upload and download software and data. The proper term used for broadcasting computer software over the air waves was "Telesoftware". If you lived in the UK during the 1980's you probably remember Ceefax, which was a BBC teletext service that broadcasted computer software via teletext.
old magnetic tapes use frequency-shift keying (FSK) modulation
There was also a cool radio project called BASICODE that run during the 1980s which broadcasted BASIC code programs over the air that you could record on a tape drive and use on any home computer that had a Basicode interpreter. The interpreter would load the BASIC code program and translate the program to a language the computer could understand.
And, who can forget the companion to the cassette tape? Back in the early 1980's, before digital recorders became popular, the tape drive was king. In fact, the early computers were tape drive computers which ran their operating systems on tape drives. Two popular tape drives at the time were the Ditto Max tape drive and the DECtape drive. Both of these can be picked up very cheaply off ebay today.

If you were born in the 1980s or early 1990s (Generation X), you most likely remember how fascinating and versatile the good old clunky cassette tape was. While clunky, the cassette tape is the perfect fit for storing huge amounts of data (4 to 6 terabytes). No wonder cassette tapes are still a popular method for storing data. Even data centers use cassette tapes for data archiving purposes.

As you can see, cassette tapes were much more than music tapes. Cassette tapes bridged the gap between the world of computer science and audio engineering.

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