Bubble Memory: The Revolution that Never Happened

If you read the more technical magazines in the early 80s, you almost certainly read about bubble memory. It was going to change the world. The revolution was just around the corner. Floppy disks, hard disks, and even RAM were going to be replaced. “Next year.” Next year never arrived. The bubble burst.
Some of the history is recounted in John Dvorak’s blog.
More technical information and some more history is on Wikipedia.
It’s interesting that with all the hype of the 80s, there are such few references now on the Internet.


A great topic. Bubble memory was mentioned in a few posts in the now-extinct G+ communities. I wonder if I can dig up something…

@guille posted:

The first laptop and the most expensive microcomputer at its time (a whopping $8150 in 1982 US Dollars). This short article is an excuse to point to the GRID Compass 1101 page here.

The GRiD Compass, first laptop (arguably, always arguably) and designed in the UK, had bubble memory:

GRiD Compass also mentioned in this post by “Byron S”:

We had a couple of these GRID laptops at work, loved these things. I wish I had kept at least one complete system (laptop, printer and expansion unit).

where I commented with:

Video tribute to Bill Moggridge within.
“The GRiD 1101 must be operated with the ‘leg’ in the down position, otherwise it stands a good chance of overheating. The 1101 runs very hot, almost too hot to touch. Not quite the ultimate portable, the 1101 does not run on batteries.”
The Grid Compass has an electroluminescent display, and bubble memory for mass storage. Up to 32 machines can be networked for multiprocessing. The machine is about the same time as the Osbourne, but a great deal more portable and rugged.
“When Grid went out of business they sold their IP to Tandy, of Radio Shack and TRS-80 fame. Some time later Tandy lawyers noticed they had unknowingly purchased the patent on clamshell computers”
Wikipedia links to this 90min video from CHM.

Also on the GRiD Compass, @mikeu posted:

The first laptop that NASA approved for use in space was the GRiD Compass II. One of its features that was important for use on the Space Shuttle was the lack of a disk drive. The moving parts were worrisome to NASA. Instead, the GRiD used bubble memory for mass storage.

EE Times had a great series on “Misunderstood Milestones” which include this article (Bubbles the better memory) on the invention of bubble memory. I also uploaded some photos of my bubble board.

@EdS posted:
The MCC Workshop Computer History part 10. Laptops and Portables through the years. - Teleram Corp. P-1800 & 3000/3100

Teleram started by making terminal devices, but in 1982 they branched into portable computing - with a lead acid battery for long life. This little machine runs the teleTalk comms software, or MS Basic, or CP/M, has a full 64k RAM, and has futuristic bubble memory for 128k of non-volatile storage, described as about a floppy’s worth of data and upgradeable to 256k. The machine has a 4 line LCD display apparently good for running a word processor or spreadsheet. The company was squeezed between Tandy’s portables and the IBM PC, and declared bankruptcy in 1985."

That info about the lead acid batteries from this video:


Three commenters at least had bubble memories in their collections and some photos were shared. (There’s more, but it’s a bit tricky to dig out of the json backups I have.)

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I was working/studying/researching in an industrial engineering lab at uni in the mid 80’s and one of the CNC Lathes we had used bubble memory for it’s storage. I forget the actual capacity, but we thought we’d never be able to fill it up… I’ve no idea what else it was used for though.


Notably, the Aquarius, apparently IBM’s most advanced of their several attempts at a home PC in the 1970s was canceled for feared unreliabilities of bubble memory, which was to be used for ROM cartridges (or is it ROS, since IBM?).

Not much is known publicly about the IBM Aquarius (1977) but the entry in Paul Atkinson’s “Delete.” (Bloomsbury Pub., 2013). There we read:

"The IBM Aquarius was designed to be upgradable by more memory using solid-state ‘bubble memory’ cartridges, which were inserted into a slot on the left-hand side of the computer’s casing. Bubble memory was a relative recent technology that had been developed at Bell Laboratories in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was of huge interest to the computing industry because at the time (…) The industry fully expected bubble memory to replace all forms of core memory, magnetic tapes and disks.
“‘The Aquarius would have blown the socks off of everybody. I felt, and a lot of people felt this was going to be a big deal and make IBM believe in this whole business.’ Yet when Lowe [the manager of the project] demonstrated the prototype to the executive board, he hit a problem. Engineers on the board were wary of bubble memory – it was to some extent an unproven technology, it was occasionally volatile and there were potential risks in investing heavily in something so new.”

(According to the book, there were a number of fully featured prototypes, some of which may be still lingering around in the vaults of the IBM Archive, and the industrial design by Tom Hardy looks terrific. Sadly, the only images I can find are from the book, so this may be a copyright issue. Anyway, here’s a rather blurry image returned by Google’s image search: https://images.app.goo.gl/EUDfq9SHrt2CVyZA6 – Apparently, design studies for other, unrelated projects for a home PC were done at Noyes Associates in the mid 1970s. )


Regarding the IBM Aquarius, the potential for alternative history is enormous. Had IBM launched the product, we may read articles like this today:

1977 – IBM and the Three Stooges
The year, the home computer revolution hit homes and made IBM synonymous with electronic home appliances.
Just in time for Christmas 1977 IBM launched its first entry to its successful Aquarius line of home computers, which also introduced the bubble memory, we all use and love, for the first time to the consumer market. Few may remember the times, when there was different kind of media used for memory and storage, from punched cards to magnetic tape and awkwardly spinning disks, and core memory for RAM and even some clumsy beginnings with cute little silicon chips. However, things may have worked out differently and we may have become stuck with mechanically moving storage media for quite a while, had IBM failed. Since, IBM was not the lone contender, as there were three other products by three upcoming firms also known as the “Three Stooges” with a nod to the “Seven Dwarves” in the business market. One of them was the now long foreclosed Tandy, then well known for electronic kits and appliances of all kind, one Commodore, a branch of MOS Technologies, which is still around, and a little known shop named “Apple” (not to be mixed with the Beatles’ label), which was soon swallowed by MOS Technologies. (…)


Edit, potential history reader comment:

“we may have become stuck with mechanically moving storage media for quite a while, had IBM failed”

I deem this a bit far fetched, surely somebody would have come up with bubble memory instead.