The history of writing and symbolic communication is a fascinating and rich topic — but not a simple one. Different groups of people have developed a wide range of communication methods depending on where and how they lived. Furthermore, it’s not exactly fair to judge prehistoric art against a modern SSD in terms of information density. For this reason, we’ve looked for mediums that were objectively bad at doing what they did — not to insult the people who invented them, but to illustrate that ancient peoples left these approaches behind for a reason.
Cave Paintings and Petroglyphs
I feel a little bad picking on cave paintings and petroglyphs. They’re the oldest known forms of symbolic communication and everybody has to start somewhere. The problem with cave paintings and petroglyphs as a storage medium is twofold:
1). They contain little information modern scholars can use to place them in a historical or cultural context.
2). They’re not exactly portable.
It’s obvious that petroglyphs and cave art had meaning to the people who created them. Not many people are interested in exploring pitch-black caves with primitive torches to find the best place to paint ibex in just the right shade of ochre. The problem is that, in many cases, we have no idea what those meanings really were. In some cases, people painted the plant they were getting high on at the time, but we don’t know the meaning they ascribed to the ritual.
As writing evolved, we gained the ability to record contextualizing information directly into the narrative, with images serving as illustrations of described events rather than containing the entirety of the event within themselves. We also figured out how to use less durable media. Advantage? Written communication becomes possible without hauling a 20-ton slab of granite around with you. Disadvantage? Keep reading.
Clay tablets (often written in cuneiform) have some serious advantages over large slabs of granite. They’re infinitely more portable and they can be quickly etched with a stylus as opposed to requiring a chisel. There’s probably a reason why the earliest known customer complaint is written on a clay tablet. Nobody, not even the cursed customers of Ea-nasir, had the patience to chisel a complaint out of a mountain. Cuneiform made that sort of thing easy. Cuneiform also beats petroglyphs in that you can actually pay to have a tweet scratched into a tablet and mailed to your house. Now you, too, can commemorate your own witty sayings with an artifact that looks like it has part of the Epic of Gilgamesh scratched into it.
Cuneiform tablets beat out giant rocks, but they fail against most other concepts. There’s no such thing as a durable cuneiform tablet anything near the thickness of paper or hide, so the medium was bulky and thick. Cuneiform data density was low. This entertaining estimate suggests data density for clay tablets was roughly 2.6 words per cm2 or ~3000 words per kilogram of clay. This compares quite poorly to books as far as density and weight, to say nothing of how it would compare with more modern methods of data storage.
The one thing clay tablets do have going for them is durability under certain circumstances. Unlike scrolls, which were quite fragile in all circumstances, clay tablets weathered the millennia reasonably well when protected. In some cases, clay tablets held in ancient royal palaces survived the destruction and sacking of their cities because torching a library full of clay tablets often bakes them, helping to preserve them for posterity. Pour one out for the librarians of Ashurbanipal, who were obviously doing the best they could at the time.
Scrolls (Particularly in the Mediterranean)
Think about the characteristics of a good storage medium. It should be physically tough, able to suffer an indignity or two without immediately collapsing. It ought to be efficient and allow for maximum use of the supplied material. It should withstand the ambient effects of the climate on its own long-term storage. It should facilitate easy copying and searching of its own contents.
Scrolls utterly fail at accomplishing most of these things, particularly outside Egypt and the Middle East. Confined to hot, dry, desert conditions, scrolls can last for thousands of years, which is why we have artifacts like the Dead Sea Scrolls and Egyptian papyrus dating back to the reign of Khufu some 4,600 years ago. It’s also why we don’t have anything comparable from the time of the Romans or Greeks, who lived thousands of years closer to our own era.
Scrolls are fragile. They can only be written on a single side and were typically read vertically, not horizontally. A single scroll could be up to 10 meters (33 feet) long, and because they were rolled up, a scribe couldn’t hold the text and take notes or make copies simultaneously. They made no use of indents or page breaks, making them impossible to bookmark. Finally, they rot over time due to ambient exposure to the humidity of Mediterranean climates. If you’re going to invent a storage medium that’s difficult to copy, it’s best to invent one that doesn’t require regular copying to maintain the information within.
The only surviving library in all of antiquity to make it to the modern era was found at Herculaneum, after being buried by a volcanic eruption in 79 AD. The scrolls — which now resemble carbonized dog turds — were first burned, thrown away, and destroyed until someone recognized a scrap of writing. We have recovered 1,826 papyri in total, of which ~340 are “almost complete,” 970 are “decayed and partly decipherable,” and more than 500 are merely charred fragments. There may yet be further buried papyri on the site.
Think about that for a moment. We have less than 1 percent of the writings of antiquity, and one of the major reasons we lack so much is because, prior to finding the Villa of the Papyri, we had no surviving scrolls from this time period at all.
Humans moved on to codices (covered in our companion story) almost immediately after they were invented, because books — or even primitive, book-like objects — are so much better than scrolls.
Just to be clear: Paper, papyrus, and the like are some of the all-time best storage mediums of all time, but not when stored as scrolls. We had to find a different method of collating information and binding it together before we could make full use of this remarkable invention. Thus, paper is amazing, but scrolls — at least in the climate of the Mediterranean — aren’t.
It’s common, in these sorts of articles, to recall the Betamax-versus-VHS format war of the 1980s and declare that VHS “won” by sucking more and costing less, thereby making it both the more successful format and objectively the worse one. But for the purposes of this list, VHS doesn’t rate. Let’s talk about the Avco Cartrivision, which sucked in ways VHS could only dream about.
Did it have a separate machine you could purchase and hook to a TV? Nope. The only units commercially available included an integrated television and the cheapest cost $1,350 in 1972 ($8,537 today). Cartrivision used a “skip field” system in which only one field (half a frame) of data was recorded to save space. This field was then repeated 3x. The end result of this system was blurry, jumpy video… and you could only watch each movie once.
Remember, this is 1972. There is no home video market. There are no tapes for sale. Avco partnered with retailers to deliver films from a 200-movie catalog. Once you got the movie, you could only watch it once. Avco consumer players, you see, lacked a rewind function. The movie could only be rewound by a special machine owned by the retailers.
You have to give Avco some credit, here. The company basically invented DIVX and Netflix while it was busy attempting to invent the VCR. Unfortunately, the entire experience cost nearly $10K in today’s money, and customers weren’t wild about the idea of only being able to watch a film once. The endeavor lasted barely a year before going out of business. After this, it was found that storing Cartrivision films in ambient humidity can lead them to decay and rot to uselessness in a matter of months.
The 3.5-inch floppy was wildly successful through the 80s and 90s, and many attempts were made to replace the format. The Floptical, HiFD, SuperDisk, and the UHD144 were all high-capacity diskettes in roughly the same form factor as the 3.5-inch floppy, but Iomega’s Zip disk was by far the most well-known competitor.
The initial run of Zip disks could store roughly 100MB of data, nearly 70x the capacity of the standard 1.44MB floppy disk. That was nothing to sneeze at in the mid-90s, but at $20 per disk, the cost-per-megabyte just wasn’t small enough to gain proper traction across the entire tech industry.
Earlier “Zip-100” drives were incompatible with larger capacity disks, and the performance of older disks was spotty on newer hardware. Even worse, Zip drives weren’t even compatible with 3.5-inch disks, so compatibility issues ended up bogging down the format for its entire existence. Regardless of competition from other mediums, the market fragmentation within the format itself made Zip disks a hard sell to consumers.
Zip drives did have the benefit of a relatively fast (roughly 1MB/s) transfer rate, but the falling price of hard drives and writeable CDs in the late 1990s made the “superfloppy” format war obsolete. On top of that, Iomega was slapped with a class-action lawsuit in 1998 in response to widespread failures — the dreaded “click of death,” signaling that the drive’s read/write actuator could no longer read disks and would repeatedly return to its initial position to try again. Iomega eventually tried to revive the brand by releasing Zip-branded CD drives, but the company never fully recovered.
Most Sony Proprietary Standards
Sony has historically built a number of proprietary standards besides Betamax, most of which have existed for the sole purpose of generating more revenue for Sony rather than contributing to any useful technological progress. Sony Memory Stick, for example, debuted in 1998 and may have been industry-leading at announcement — I am not certain on this point — but just a few years later, CompactFlash and later SD Cards were doing everything that Memory Sticks could do.
For years, Sony wouldn’t budge. Devices like the PlayStation Portable and PlayStation Vita both used expensive media formats that raised the price of owning these products for no reason. Sony Memory Stick’s primary purpose was to capture more profits for Sony, which is why the company continued to use it in lieu of cheaper, consumer-friendly standards. The format had no particular reason to exist and offered no benefit over other formats like SD Card. Sony’s proprietary format insistence isn’t the reason that the Vita failed in-market, but it didn’t do the company any favors, either.
Dishonorable Mention: LaserDisc
LaserDiscs have earned themselves a qualified mention here. What distinguishes LD from other standards on the list is that it was often the best way to view a film in the years before DVD, despite the drawbacks. It also introduced a number of features that VHS players lacked. With a horizontal resolution of 425 lines compared with 240 lines for VHS, LaserDisc players delivered nearly DVD quality nearly 20 years before DVDs became widely available. LaserDiscs could store multiple audio tracks and handled both digital and analog formats, and unlike VHS, LDs wouldn’t degrade with use and offered instant rewind and fast forward, similar to CDs. The Wikipedia entry for LaserDisc notes that it took DVDs several years to actually exceed LD quality, despite being better on paper from the start.
The reason LaserDisc is on this list at all is because of all the other sacrifices that had to be made to support cutting-edge image quality circa 1978. The discs themselves were the size of 33 RPM records (12 inches / ~300mm). They spun at 1800 RPM, which made playback slightly noisier than your typical record. Discs weighed over a half-pound each and only held, at most, 64 minutes of recording per side. Some players could flip discs automatically, but for years budget-priced models didn’t and some movies shipped on multiple discs anyway, necessitating a mid-play shift regardless.
What saves LaserDisc from being a straightforwardly “worst” technology is that if you were willing to pony up money for the player and the media, you really did get a better experience than you could have anywhere else outside a movie theater. My family didn’t own a LaserDisc player, but a longtime family friend did, and I was lucky enough to catch a few movies that way in the late 1990s. The quality, even on an average TV set of the era, was vastly better than VHS.
LaserDisc was less a horrible format than a deliberate choice some videophiles made, accepting inconvenience for a better quality at-home film than you could get through any other method at the time.
Feature image by KMJ, published under the GNU Free Documentation License.