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Computer Equals Tapedrive

"Whoa, whoa, what's this? Are you kidding me? Are we using tape reel computers? Noooo! Wait ... are those slots for punched cards?"
Gordon Freeman, Freeman's Mind

In older movies and TV shows, made before the invention of the personal computer, all computers had large nine-track reel-to-reel magnetic tape drives, which were always moving back and forth. They usually had banks of blinking lights as well. Most viewers were left with the impression that the tape drive was the computer.

This was primarily done because the computer itself is very visually uninteresting when in operation. When a Tape Drive is operating, there is obviously something going on.

No longer as common, since in Real Life, almost everybodynote  has stopped using the old-fashioned 9-track mag tape reel because of size and cost, e.g. a 6250 bpi, 1600 foot tape could hold, at most, a little over 100 megabytes of data,note  and costs about US$12. By 2012, it was possible to walk into a stationery store and buy a microSD card the size of a man's thumbnail for close to $12, and it would hold at least 4 billion bytes, or about 50 times as much as the above tape reel. And that's not even the cheapest example. A top-the-line 4 terabytenote  hard drive could often be purchased at or under US$200. That means data storage on modern hardware is thousands of times cheaper today, and that's before factoring in inflation.note 

In modern works, this trope shows up only in period pieces set before approximately 1975, or when dealing with technology built before then. Interestingly, although the use of audio cassettes for data storage on home computers was quite common in the late 70s and early 80s, no one ever mistook a tape deck for a CPU box.

Superseded by Computer Equals Monitor. It might seem weird though, but the tape drive is not exactly extinct as a storage medium, and modern ones can store up to 8 TB of data. Their niche seems to be for the purpose of backups in large multinational enterprises though, given the low retrieval speeds. As for appearing in film, most filmmakers give the modern drive a pass since modern LTO tape drives don't look anything like those tape drives of old and are so uncommon that not many people have seen one; the tapes look like small videocassettes (nothing like the big open-reel tapes that used to be common) and the drives mount in the same bays as CD/DVD drives. Not to mention that the lack of activity indicators on one and the inability to see the tape reels spinning, as well as the abovementioned speed issue, makes it a very boring subject to film.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • In Kino's Journey one country obviously has very highly advanced technology, but the computers there apparently still use tape drives.

    Comic Books 
  • In the original X-Men comic in the '60s, Cerebro (!) had a tape drive.

    Film 
  • In The Italian Job (1969), all the traffic lights in Turin were controlled by computer. The heroes caused a massive traffic jam by sneaking into the computer center and hanging a magtape that made the whole system go haywire. Presumably the control software read the tape automatically, as no other interaction was needed. It shouldn't have worked anyway - when the tape is shown being read, it's actually twisted over the heads, and should therefore be unreadable
  • In the film Fail Safe a (for then) large mainframe computer is focused upon, with the tape drives running backwards. When tapes were used for main storage, not just backup, changing direction and rewriting part of a tape was common, and most mainframe tape drives were just as happy to read data backwards as well as forwards.
  • Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope had one of the Imperial brass on the Death Star mention that said superweapon's plans were stored on tapes. The opening does say that the series is set a long time ago...
  • In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cap and Black Widow stumble upon an old SHIELD lab and an early 80's-era computer complete with this function. It turns out that the computer is much more advanced than they initially thought.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Star Trek: The Original Series had "memory tapes". (The TNG era sensibly replaced them with "isolinear chips", which seem to be a combination of flash memory card and processing element.)
    • At its premier, TOS was virtually an aversion of the trope: yes, they were tapes, but they were hand-held tapes (about the size of a deck of cards) that could store HUGE amounts of data and be accessed very quickly, which at the time was laughably far-fetched. It would be the equivalent of a standard magnetic platter hard-drive the size of a postage stamp that could store the entire internet. The creators have actually come out and said that they didn't want to expressly use tapes or "normal computer processing noises", but thought it would have been been too unfamiliar and broken the glamor.
  • Doctor Who in the 1960s, of course, although some episodes set in the future eschew the tape drives for more blinking lights. An egregious example in the First Doctor serial The War Machines: WOTAN, the Master Computer, is expectedly chock full of blinking lights and tape drives - but so are the titular War Machines, which were built on the mastercomputer's specifications. But that's not the best bit. The War Machines, which were largish mini tanks that roamed the streets of London, had the tape drives mounted on the outside.
  • From Thunderbirds, Thunderbird 5, the manned observation satellite from which poor, neglected John Tracy monitored the world's radio airwaves for distress calls, used reel-to-reel memory exclusively.
    • In fact, the entire premise of the programme would be completely undermined by digital technology.
  • In LOST, the computer room in the first hatch (Desmond's, the Swan, 2nd season) has 'em. Whether or not the inclusion is realistic, it's good for maintaining that Forbidding Doomsday Computer vibe. The overall effect of pairing this visual with the song "Make Your Own Kind of Music" is positively surreal (especially compared to the outdoors setting that formerly predominated).
    • It's established later in the series that the installation and computer were set up in the late 70s and then mostly isolated from the outside world, so the tape drives (and monochromatic text-prompt computer interface) are completely era-appropriate.
  • In the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson series UFO a montage of flashing lights, spinning tape drives, blocky letters on coloured monitors, swaying female buttocks, and rows of large luminous buttons accompany every Red Alert.
  • Averted in A for Andromeda (written by astronomer Fred Hoyle who used computers in his work). The protagonist has to destroy all the components of the Master Computer to be sure it won't be rebuilt.
  • Graeme's computer in The Goodies featured a large, obvious tape drive, although that was far from the oddest thing about. Spoofed in the 2005 "Return of the Goodies" documentary where a now middle-aged Graeme tries to insert an enormous disk in his computer.
    "I'll pop it on the laptop. Hang on, it's not compatible. I shall give it an upgrade. (hits it with a mallet)

    Machinima 
  • Lampshaded in Freeman's Mind when Gordon enters an old but still in-use rocket test site. Despite being under attack from an Eldritch Abomination, it is the sight of a tapedrive (and punchcards, see the page quote) that sends him to a raging rant.

    Music 

    Pinball 
  • Pin*Bot has the "Computer Equals Blinking Lights" version, a giant robot with a bank of flashing multicolored lights in its chest. Turning on all the lights opens the visor to enable multiball.

    Video Games 
  • The memory banks from the videogame Evil Genius are big mainframes with a nine-track tape drive, which makes sense since the game is a 1960's Diabolical Mastermind simulator.
    • Also somewhat justified in that those items are pure memory banks, and the actual computing is done with a separate item looking more like a large desk (think N.A.S.A. computers in Apollo 13)
  • Surprisingly, most videogames - even current ones - where you get to see large, room-sized server farms (or mainframes, or whatever) seem to have at least one instance of a spinning tape animated texture slapped on a large block of metal.
    • It's justified in Team Fortress 2 as well, since it takes place in the actual 1960s. Granted, this world has been shown to have more advanced science than its period (or our own, or the laws of physics), but nothing that would have been out of place in a sci-fi flick of the period, which still probably would have featured tape drives.
  • The computers in Fallout are often found with tape drives. In Fallout 2, these are described as being very modern reel-to-reel devices. Justified, given the slightly twisted alternate history the games exist in (e.g. the transistor was never invented in the Falloutverse).
  • The Black Mesa facility in Half-Life apparently still uses these in some areas. Seeing as many areas are converted Cold War-era missile silos and bunkers, it's possible some of the outdated equipment hasn't been replaced.
  • Human computers in The Bureau Xcom Declassified. Since it's set in 1962, totally justified.
  • Despite its future setting, the Vandenberg labs in Deus Ex have a few tape decks running. Apparently they're capable of managing a Universal Constructor.
  • The computers in BioShock 2's "Minerva's Den" DLC feature visible, spinning tape drives like any computer from the period. Odder is the fact that the computer in question is able to dump its core data onto a device small enough for Dr. Tenenbaum to keep on her person.
  • In the first mission in Jazz Punk, you run into a Fem Bot prostitute who has tape reels for breasts. The game doesn't take itself particularly seriously, if you hadn't guessed.

    Web Comics 

    Western Animation 
  • Played with in Megas XLR in the episode "Viva Las Megas", which features R.E.C.R, a giant military robot built in the 60's. It has a tape reel and a "massive" 56 kilobyte processor.
  • In The Venture Bros., The computer system that stores The minds of the Venture brothers is apparently run on tape.
    • In another episode, malevolent supercomputer M.U.T.H.eR. is on a reel-to-reel mainframe. Lampshaded when M.U.T.H.eR. tries to launch a nuclear missile; while everyone is panicking, Pete White mentions that a computer that runs on such an ancient mainframe (and uses a dial-up modem) can't act very quickly.
  • In one of the numerous Sponge Bob Square Pants TV specials, the Atlanteans have a giant machine which can shrink people down to the size of viruses, and everyone's data gets stored on a magnetic tape drive.
  • A first season episode of the Super Friends featured the G.E.E.C., a computer that could replace all the world's laborers. It filled many rooms, and sported several reel-to-reel tape drives.

     Real Life 
  • Magnetic tapes are the precursors of today's hard drive.
  • In the 8 bit era of home computers (Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Dragon, TRS-80 and the like) software was available on cassette tapes, which were the exact same format as the Compact Cassettes that younger tropers associate with the 1990s for some reason (but were actually invented in the 1960s and were just as prevalent in the 1980s) In fact certain systems (the ZX Spectrum and TRS-80 Color Computer in particular) actually used standard cassette players as their tape "drives" and you could hear the software when if you played the software tapes in a standard Hi-Fi (which also meant that a dual deck cassette deck of the sort that was common in the early 1990s made a perfect copying device!)
  • Donald E. Knuth's seminal Art of Computer Programming includes how to best sort data on one or two tape drives, and whether the tape can be read backwards or not. First published in 1973 when tape drives were much more common.

Computer Equals MonitorMagical ComputerComputer Virus
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