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bubble-memory

Bubble memory

Bubble memory is a type of non-volatile computer memory that uses a thin film of a magnetic material to hold small magnetized areas, known as bubbles, which each store one bit of data. Bubble memory started out as a promising technology in the 1970s, but failed commercially as hard disk prices fell rapidly in the 1980s.

Prehistory: twistor memory

Bubble memory is largely the brainchild of a single person, Andrew Bobeck. Bobeck had worked on many kinds of magnetics-related projects through the 1960s, and two of his projects put him in a particularly good position for the development of bubble memory. The first was the development of the first magnetic core memory system driven by a transistor-based controller, and the second was the development of twistor memory.

Twistor memory was based on magnetostriction, an effect which can be used to move magnetic fields. If a pattern is placed on a medium (for instance, magnetic tape) and then a current is passed through the tape, the patterns will slowly be "pushed" down the tape while the patterns themselves will remain unchanged. By placing a detector at some point over the tape, the fields will pass under it in turn without any physical motion. In effect it is a non-moving version of a single track from a drum memory. In the 1960s AT&T had used Twistor in a number of applications.

Magnetic bubbles

In 1967 Bobeck joined a team at Bell Labs and started work on improving Twistor. He thought that if he could find a material that allowed the movement of the fields easily in only one direction, a sort of 2D Twistor could be constructed. Patterns would be introduced at one edge of the material and pushed along just as in Twistor, but since they could be moved in one direction only, they would naturally form "tracks" across the surface, increasing the areal density.

Starting with work on orthoferrite, Bobeck noticed an additional interesting effect: if an external field was applied to a magnetized patch of the material, the magnetized area would contract into a tiny circle, which he called a bubble. These bubbles were much smaller than the "domains" of normal media like tape, which suggested that very high densities were possible.

Five significant discoveries took place at Bell Labs:

  1. The controlled two-dimensional motion of single wall domains in permalloy films.
  2. The application of orthoferrites
  3. The discovery of the stable cylindrical domain
  4. The invention of the field access mode of operation
  5. The discovery of growth-induced uniaxial anisotropy in the garnet system and the realization that garnets would be a practical material.

The bubble system cannot be described by any single invention, but in terms of the above discoveries. Andy Bobeck was the sole discoverer of (4) and (5) and co-discoverer of (2) and (3); and (1) was performed in Bobeck's group under his direction and with many significant inputs from Andy. At one point, over 60 scientists were working on the project at Bell Labs, many of whom have earned recognition in this field. For instance, in September 1974, H.E.D. Scovil, working at Bell Labs in New Jersey, was awarded the IEEE Morris N. Liebmann Memorial Award by the IEEE with the following citation: For the concept and development of single-walled magnetic domains (magnetic bubbles), and for recognition of their importance to memory technology.

It took some time to find the perfect material, but they discovered that garnet turned out to have the right properties. Bubbles would easily form in the material and could be pushed along it fairly easily. The next problem was to make them move to the proper location where they could be read back out – Twistor was a wire and there was only one place to go, but in a 2D sheet things would not be so easy. The solution was to imprint a pattern of tiny magnetic bars onto the surface of the garnet. When a small magnetic field was applied, they would become magnetized, and the bubbles would "stick" to one end. By then reversing the field they would be attracted to the far end, moving down the surface. Another reversal would pop them off the end of the bar to the next bar in the line.

A memory device is formed by lining up tiny electromagnets at one end with detectors at the other end. Bubbles written in would be slowly pushed to the other, forming a sheet of Twistors lined up beside each other. Attaching the output from the detector back to the electromagnets turns the sheet into a series of loops, which can hold the information as long as needed.

Bubble memory is a non-volatile memory. Even when power was removed, the bubbles remained, just as the patterns do on the surface of a disk drive. Better yet, bubble memory devices needed no moving parts: the field that pushed the bubbles along the surface was generated electrically, whereas media like tape and disk drives required mechanical movement. Finally, because of the small size of the bubbles, the density was theoretically much higher than existing magnetic storage devices. The only downside was speed; The bubbles had to cycle to the far end of the sheet before they could be read.

Commercialization

Bobeck's team soon had 1 cm square memories that stored 4,096 bits, the same as a then-standard plane of core memory. This sparked considerable interest in the industry. Not only could bubble memories replace core, but it seemed that they could replace tapes and disks as well. In fact, it seemed that bubble memory would soon be the only form of memory used in the vast majority of applications, with the high-speed market being the only one they couldn't serve.

By the mid-1970s practically every large electronics company had teams working on bubble memory. By the late 1970s several products were on the market, and Intel released their own 1 megabit version, the 7110. In the early 1980s, however, bubble memory became a dead end with the introduction of higher-density, faster, and cheaper hard disk systems. Almost all work on it stopped.

Bubble memory found uses in niche markets through the 1980s in systems needing to avoid the higher rates of mechanical failures of disk drives, and in systems operating in high vibration or harsh environments. This application became obsolete too with the development of flash memory, which also brought speed, density, and cost benefits.

One application was Konami's Bubble System arcade video game system, introduced in 1984. It featured interchangeable bubble memory cartridges on a 68000-based board. Games available for the system included Galactic Warriors, Gradius, Konami RF2 (a racing game, also known as Konami GT), and TwinBee. The Bubble System required a "warm-up" time of about 20 seconds (prompted by a timer on the screen when switched on) before the game was loaded, as bubble memory needs to be heated to around 30 to 40 °C to operate properly. The Bubble System did not prove popular, and many games originally available on the system were later released on other arcade boards with conventional ROM chips.

Sharp used bubble memory in their PC 5000 series, a laptop-like portable computer from 1983.

Nicolet used bubble memory modules for saving waveforms in their Model 3091 oscilloscope.

Further applications

Proposals using microfluidic bubbles as logic (rather than memory) have been recently proposed by MIT researchers. The bubble logic would use nanotechnology and has been demonstrated to have access times of 7 ms, which is faster than the 10 ms access times that present hard drives have, though it is slower than the access time of traditional RAM and of traditional logic circuits, making the proposal not commercially practical at present.

See also

References

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