In the original series of Star Trek tapes are used for data storage. Tapes are somewhat archaic in 2015, let alone the 23rd century. They are only really of much use for archival, due to access times measured in minutes. Yet they seem to be Starfleet's main storage medium.

Are there explanations for this, both in universe and in real life? Hard drives were invented in the 1950s and were not uncommon by the mid 60s.

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    So we're just going to ignore the fact that tapes are still in use today
    – Valorum
    Aug 16, 2015 at 18:46
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    There is an obvious answer to this question: the writers and creators of Star Trek can't predict the future. Usually what happens with future prediction is they just imagine current tech done a little better. It's hard to think of stuff that hasn't been thought of yet. Aug 16, 2015 at 22:24
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    @Richard: Tapes are used for warehouse-scale data storage. I'm not sure it's a great idea to try to do warehouse-scale anything in space, but Star Trek doesn't seem to worry as much about that as I would.
    – Kevin
    Aug 17, 2015 at 0:24
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    Short answer: they weren't actually tapes. They were only called tapes because in the sixties that was the primary semi-permanent storage medium for computers. Why do we still call them hard drives, even though the motivation for the word "hard" has long since disappeared? Why did we still call them floppy drives after they were no longer floppy? Why is the universal symbol for saving still a floppy disk in many programs (including Visual Studio), even though we haven't used them for years? Aug 17, 2015 at 2:58
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    @MasonWheeler Automatic doors were invented in 1954 (see Lew Hewitt and Dee Horton). TOS communicators had nothing to do with cell phones (cell ("network") being the critical part of a cell phone). They were simply walkie-talkies with a flipping "panel". Star Trek was pretty good at picking recent technologies and hypotheses, before they became properly mainstream; they didn't really "invent" much. Even the famous Okudagrams were just an extrapolation of existing technology and older science fiction.
    – Luaan
    Aug 17, 2015 at 13:08

5 Answers 5


Like most of Star Trek's technology, we never really get an explanation for how it evolved, only technobabble for how it works. However, it's important to note that we don't actually know what technology those "tapes" use. Yes, they are physical cartridge-like objects that get put into a slot to access their data.

But that description also describes flash memory cards, removable SSD hard drives, etc:

MicroSD Card Star Trek Tape

The use of a portable device for holding offline data, that is "loaded" into a computer on demand, is a pretty universal concept. This would be particularly useful if your vessel spends a lot of time at faster-than-light speeds. Cloud computing would be right out.

The "tapes" allow the Starfleet personnel to record data in one place and move it somewhere else, accessing it only when needed, which would:

  • Improve security -- all that data isn't online where it can be "hacked"
  • Reduce space usage -- the computer's storage can be used for important things, like the recipe for Earl Grey Tea
  • Allow easy information exchange

Of course, thought we do see some usage of cassettes in TNG, it's much more rare. Instead, the computer is often instructed to "load" a certain program. This could mean that the tape concept still exists, but it's now a centrally-located tape rack, which the computer can load from at random. Or, it's possible that information density has gotten so high that the need for offline storage is gone, and their hand-held devices have replaced them.

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    @MoJo The fact that holodeck programs are large actually makes tapes more suitable, since tapes have considerably larger storage capacities than any other format (Sony developed a 185TB cartridge last year). That's over 10 times the storage of the largest SSD available. Seek times are irrelevant since transfer rates are the bottleneck. You could likely wind through the tape in under 2 minutes, but it'd take over 3 days to transfer that much data at 700 MBps (that's with compression). Aug 16, 2015 at 20:32
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    I think you're both making an unwarranted assumption that "tapes" in Star Trek are of the magnetic reel-to-reel variety in the first place. They may just call them 'tapes' for historical reasons
    – KutuluMike
    Aug 16, 2015 at 22:31
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    +SylvainL geek.com/chips/…
    – oakad
    Aug 17, 2015 at 0:34
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    @MikeEdenfield: Indeed, just as the term "wireless" has been resurrected for mobile devices it could well be that the entangled quantum strings they use for high density data storage are called "tapes" because they resemble 23rd century measuring tapes. Also, get over it, tech moved on, surely we don't need to retcon all new wave tech into old shows? Please? Aug 17, 2015 at 11:30
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    @MikeEdenfield and I bet that, in order to persist a file they've edited, they still press an icon of a floppy disk!
    – gbjbaanb
    Aug 17, 2015 at 13:07

Words change their meaning over time.

For example, I guess or deduce that the original meaning of the word yet was "now", "at the present time". And from that meaning the opposite secondary meanings of "still" and "already" developed.

When I was child I thought that yet only meant already, as in "Are we there yet?".

But that doesn't seem to make sense in the song "Bendemeer's stream".

the line:

I think: "Is the nightingale singing there yet?"

probably does not mean he is wondering if the nightengale has already arrived and started singing. Instead it probably means he wonders if the nightingale is still singing there.

The storytelling logic of the song tells me that in "Bendemeer's stream" "yet" means "still", the exact opposite to "already", the meaning I am much more familiar with. And thus from that one line in a song I deduce that "yet" probably originally meant "now".

On 19th century paddlewheel steamers a wooden platform bridged the gap between the tops of the two semicircular wheelhouses and was used to command the ship from. After decades of commanding and steering paddlewheel ships from their bridges, the command platform on propeller steamships continued to be called the bridge, and so on until the 24th century starships and beyond.

The writers of TOS may have imagined that computer tapes would still be used in the era of Star Trek and so called the small transportable data storage units "tapes", but with our modern knowledge of more advanced computer data storage, we can imagine that in the alternate universe of Star Trek which branched off from ours before World War II, small transportable computer data storage units are still called "tapes" for the same reasons that the command center of a starship is still called the "bridge".

And here is a link to a similar question.

Why does the Star Wars universe use such a primitive technology as data-tapes?1

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    I think your answer NAILS it. Great example!
    – Evik James
    Aug 17, 2015 at 14:09

The "tapes" we see in TOS show no sign of actually physically being tapes. They look a lot more like solid-state storage of some kind (the props look like simple rectangles of lucite or similar):

Image from memory alpha

(From Memory Alpha)

Image from Pacific201

(From pacific201.com)

enter image description here

(From leaningstewards.org)

It could easily be that at some point they had extremely high-speed, high-density tapes for much the reason we still have tapes today (durability, capacity), the term became common again, and then they got replaced by a new form of solid-state storage but the term was entrenched.

Being in the northern half of my 40s, I said the other day having heard a new band "That's pretty good, I might get the album." (ouch)

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    Don't forget the B side of that album :) -- BTW, have yo ever wondered if it is possible to double the capacity of Star Trek trapes by punching a hole? ;) Aug 17, 2015 at 10:25
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    @HagenvonEitzen: Hey, at least I didn't say "record." :-) Aug 17, 2015 at 10:27
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    Observation seeing those images: None of the "tapes" appear to be in any way labeled. I just imagine someone with a stack of these things trying to figure out whether their warp core schematics are stored on the red lucite rectangle or the yellow one... And if there's more than one of the same color, all bets are off. Somebody in the future needs to invent the Sharpie... Aug 17, 2015 at 14:02
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    @DarrelHoffman: :-) Yeah, I remember thinking that more than once as a boy. The Memory Alpha page shows a picture of Nurse Chapel with "food cards" which look like they might be labelled in some way, but most of the time we saw these things, they were completely free of any identifying info. :-) Aug 17, 2015 at 14:19
  • I still get criticized by my fiance sometimes for talking about going to a movie theater as "seeing a show", and I'm only 33! Aug 17, 2015 at 18:34

Magnetic tape has the longest average shelf life (10~20 years) of any existing and still in use storage medium. It also offers the highest sequential read/write speeds of any type of storage and can perform reading and writing simultaneously. IMO the burden of proof lies on you, why wouldn't we still be using tapes?

Magnetic tape data storage –Wiki (Richard's link)

Viability: (edited for brevity; missing some citations)

At any single moment in time each T10000C tape drive can read or write (or both read and write) to one tape cartridge which can contain up to 5TB of uncompressed data. Real-world sequential data transfer speeds are high (sustained 240MB/second for the T10000C and 160MB/second for the TS1130) compared to disk.

The smallest SL8500 library holds up to 1,448 tape cartridges, for 1.4 Petabytes of online uncompressed storage. An equivalent amount of PC-class hard disk storage would be priced at $100,000 or less for the drives. The tape library would likely deliver a higher sustained sequential write speed, the media would be more rugged (for off-site storage), the media would meet or exceed long-term archival storage requirements (for reliable retrieval decades into the future), and the data center power and cooling requirements would be considerably lower. The economics of this comparison are more complicated than a single-spindle versus tape drive comparison.

Data storage lifespansstoragecraft.com

Magnetic data and cassette tapes: 10-20 years
Nintendo Cartridge: up to 10 years
Floppy Disk: 10-20 years
CDs and DVDs: 5-10 unrecorded 2-5 recorded
Blu-Ray: Not certain, probably over 2-5 recorded
M-Disc: 1,000 years (theoretically)
Hard Disk: 3-5 years
Flash Storage: Depends on write cycles, 5-10 years or more

If we conservatively assume that all of the Enterprise's sensor data is collected at 1GB per second, that's ~31 petabytes per standard year. For that we'd need about 50 million (650MB) CD-ROMs (or ~6M BRDs) compared to ~21 SL8500's (~30k tapes) and remember, that's the smallest one we have today.

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    I don't know where Floppy Disk lifetime was stimated. I remember I was not even able to have floppy disks last more than 1-2 month after that I had to re-write them.
    – user42298
    Aug 17, 2015 at 18:37
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    @DarioOO I still own an Apple IIe and some of the disks still work 30+ years later, but most of them don't.
    – Mazura
    Aug 17, 2015 at 18:41
  • If you constantly write to a cassette tape, I doubt it will last 20 years...
    – Yakk
    Aug 17, 2015 at 20:48
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    @Yakk Re-writing isn't really my concern. It's about archivability.
    – Mazura
    Aug 17, 2015 at 20:53
  • @Mazura Then what is up with the Flash Storage data point? It talks about write cycles: the practical write cycle count of flash storage makes tapes look positively fragile. Or are you saying something else? Unpowered storage?
    – Yakk
    Aug 17, 2015 at 21:15

Actually they used tape as in motion picture film. The writers/props people come up with a lot of new tech, but in other cases they just punted and used what was prevalant for the day.

enter image description here

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    It seems like there could be a fairly large number of amusing captions to go with that pic. Aug 18, 2015 at 4:47

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