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. 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-of-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.
In the 1990s the films Clear and Present Danger and Eraser featured StorageTek PowderHorn robotic tape "silos".
Superseded by Computer Equals Monitor. It might seem weird, but the tape drive is not exactly extinct as a storage medium, and modern ones as of June 2018 can store up to 12 TB of data. Their niche today is generally backups for large multinational enterprises. Of course it's worth noting that they currently have no real technical advantage over hard drive backups, other than being compatible with older systems. 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 above-mentioned speed issue, makes it a very boring subject to film.
- In Kino's Journey one country obviously has very highly advanced technology, but the computers there apparently still use tape drives.
- In the original X-Men comic in the '60s, Cerebro (!) had a tape drive.
- 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, complete with tape drives.
- 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.
Darth Vader: We have the ability to destroy a planet and tape is the best backup medium we have?
- In Rogue One we get to see said tapes, along with many others at the Imperial data center on Scarif. Makes one wonder whether it's an accident the storage units look so much like VHS boxes.
- 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.
- In Iron Sky, the moon-nazi scientist doesn't believe that a smartphone is really a computer. He points to, yes, a room-filling beast of a computer with tape reels and blinky lights and says, "That's not a computer. This a computer!" He's forced to admit his machine is woefully out-of-date upon actually using said phone. He then reverse-engineers the phone's USB jack and uses it to run a space cruiser.
- I Dream of Jeannie: The giant, billion-dollar, brand new NASA computer in "The Girl Who Never Had A Birthday".
- 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 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 (or possibly tape cartridge) 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)
- Banacek: In "If Max Is So Smart, Why Doesn't He Tell Us Where He Is?", the object stolen is Max, a 1970s supercomputer with spinning tape drives and blinking lights that takes up half a room.
- 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 background went right on with a 1950s-esque vision of the future for more than a century, right up until the bombs fell).
- 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.
- Wolfenstein: The New Order zig-zags this; the game is set in an Alternate Universe where Nazi Germany won World War II thanks to super-science provided by the Big Bad Deathshead. As a result, the Germans have personal computers and even an elaborate moon base in the 1960s... but the launch codes for a stolen nuclear submarine (which are stored at said moon base) come in the form of punchcards.
- Call of Duty: Black Ops features them, given its '60s setting. Memorably, one is used in the fourth mission as the basis for a Quick Time Event right before the shooting starts, wherein you sneak up on an unsuspecting guard and smash his head into the tape reel.
- In DuckTales (1987), Glomgold's computer in "Wrong way to Ronguay" is of this type.
- 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; Coop taunts it by telling it he's got ten-year-old video games that are more technologically advanced than it is.
- 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 else 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 SpongeBob SquarePants 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.
- In one episode of Futurama, Bender hangs a pinup of a tape deck computer. Fry approves.
- Fry had just hung a pinup of a girl in a bikini. The large round tape reels in Bender's picture have just the right placement to invite comparison to certain large round objects in Fry's picture.
- Magnetic tapes are the precursors of today's hard drive. Surprisingly, they are still used in the modern day, and new developments are still being made; as of December 2017, Ultrium LTO-8 tapes are available, storing 12TB of uncompressed data (30GB compressed, with an effective hardware compression ratio of 2.5:1). They're mainly stored in a backup location far from the main site of the source data, used as a long-lived backup and/or to replace data in case of a disaster. The reason is that magnetic tapes can be easily swapped quickly (since only the tape needs to be replaced) while hard drives cannot (unless the center pays for a hard drive that can, which can cost thousands). Also, when properly stored, in a dry and climate-controlled environment, magnetic tapes last for decades, moreso than hard drives or CDs.
- 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, as well as the Apple ][,) actually used standard cassette players as their tape "drives" and you could hear the software 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!). If you did your own programming you could record to them as well, making them the exact precursor to home use floppy drives.
- 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.