Magnetic Bubble Memory Brought To Life On Heathkit

There are all kinds of technology that appear through the ages that find immediate success, promise to revolutionize the world, but fade to obscurity almost as quickly. Things like the ZIP disk, RDRAM, the digital compact cassette, or even Nintendo’s VirtualBoy. Going even further back in time [smbaker] is taking a look a bubble memory, a technology that was so fast and cost-effective for its time that it could have been used as “universal” memory, combining storage and random-access memory into a single unit, but eventually other technological developments overshadowed its quirks.

[smbaker] is placing his magnetic bubble memory module to work in a Heathkit H8, an Intel 8080-based microcomputer from the the late 70s. The video goes into great detail on the theory of how these devices used moving “bubbles” of magnetism to store information and how these specific devices work before demonstrating the design and construction of a dedicated support card which hosts the module itself along with all of the necessary circuitry to allow it to communicate with the computer. From there he demonstrates booting the device using the bubble memory and performs several write and read actions using the module as a demonstration.

Eventually other technologies such as solid-state RAM and various hard disk drives caused the obsolescence of this technology, but it did hang on for a bit longer in industrial settings due to its ability to handle high vibrations and mechanical shocks, mostly thanks to the fact that they had no moving parts. Eventually things like Flash memory came around to put the final nail in the coffin for these types of memory modules, though. The Heathkit H8 is still a popular computer for retrocomputing enthusiasts nonetheless, and we’ve seen all kinds of different memory modules put to work in computers like these.

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Magnetic Bubble Memory Farewell Tour

There’s something both satisfying and sad about seeing an aging performer who used to pack a full house now playing at a local bar or casino. That’s kind of how we felt looking at [Craig’s] modern-day bubble memory build. We totally get, however, the desire to finish off that project you thought would be cool four decades ago and [Craig] seems to be well on the way to doing just that.

If you don’t recall, bubble memory was going to totally wipe out the hard drive industry back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A byproduct of research on twistor memory, the technology relied on tiny magnetic domains or bubbles circulating on a thin film. Bits circulated to the edge of the film where they were read using a magnetic pickup. Then a write head put them back at the other edge to continue their journey. It was very much like the old delay line memories, but with tiny magnetic domains instead of pressure waves through mercury.

We don’t know where [Craig] got his Intel 7110 but they are very pricey nowadays thanks to their rarity. In some cases, it’s cheaper to buy some equipment that used bubble memory and steal the devices from the board. You can tell that [Craig] was very careful working his way to testing the full board.

Because these were state-of-the-art in their day, the chips have extra loops and would map out the bad loops. Since the bubble memory is nonvolatile, that should be a one time setup at the factory. However, in case you lost the map, the same information appears on the chip’s label. [Craig’s] first test was to read the map and compare it to the chip’s printed label. They matched, so that’s a great sign the chip is in good working order and the circuit is able to read, at least.

We’ve talked about bubble memory before along with many other defunct forms of storage. There were a few military applications that took advantage of the non-mechanical nature of the device and that’s why the Navy’s NEETS program has a section about them.

Thanks For The Memories: Touring The Awesome Random Access Of Old

I was buying a new laptop the other day and had to make a choice between 4GB of memory and 8. I can remember how big a deal it was when a TRS-80 went from 4K (that’s .000004 GB, if you are counting) to 48K. Today just about all RAM (at least in PCs) is dynamic–it relies on tiny capacitors to hold a charge. The downside to that is that the RAM is unavailable sometimes while the capacitors get refreshed. The upside is you can inexpensively pack lots of bits into a small area. All of the common memory you plug into a PC motherboard–DDR, DDR2, SDRAM, RDRAM, and so on–are types of dynamic memory.

The other kind of common RAM you see is static. This is more or less an array of flip flops. They don’t require refreshing, but a static RAM cell is much larger than an equivalent bit of dynamic memory, so static memory is much less dense than dynamic. Static RAM lives in your PC, too, as cache memory where speed is important.

For now, at least, these two types of RAM technology dominate the market for fast random access read/write memory. Sure, there are a few new technologies that could gain wider usage. There’s also things like flash memory that are useful, but can’t displace regular RAM because of speed, durability, or complex write cycles. However, computers didn’t always use static and dynamic RAM. In fact, they are relatively newcomers to the scene. What did early computers use for fast read/write storage?

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