In various types of electronic equipment, a cartridge can refer one method of adding different functionality or content (e.g. a video game cartridge), or a method by which consumables may be replenished (e.g. an ink cartridge for a printer). The term cartridge tends to be applied loosely to a large range of techniques which conform to this general description.
In general the term tends to mean any detachable sub-unit that is held within its own container. The term cassette has a similar meaning. A video game cartridge may also be referred to as a cart or game pak.
A cartridge may be one method of running different software programs within a general purpose computer. This system was popularised by early home computers such as the Atari 400/800 and Commodore 64, where a special bus port was provided for the insertion of cartridges containing software in ROM. In most cases the designs were fairly crude, with the entire address and data buses exposed by the port; the cartridge was memory mapped directly into the system's address space. This type of system was pioneered on earlier home TV game systems, and until recently remained a popular approach with modern games consoles. The advantage of cartridges over other approaches such as loading software from other media is that the software is instantly available, with no loading time, and it is held in a very robust and hence damage-resistant form. However this damage resistance depended on design. While being easier to protect than a CD, which is easily scratched, or a Tape, which is easily pulled apart, the chips inside the cartridge could be easily damaged with enough shock. If the case did not keep the chips stable, they were easily damaged.
Also of note, the connections being exposed could be broken or worn down. Also, if a foreign substance accumulated on the contacts then the cartridge may not interface with the system.
Notable computers using cartridges in addition to magnetic media were the Commodore VIC-20 and 64, the Atari 8-bit family (400/800/XL/XE), the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A (where they were called Solid State Command Modules and weren't directly mapped to the system bus) and the IBM PCjr (where the cartridge was mapped into BIOS space).
From the late 1970s to mid-1990s, the majority of home video game systems were cartridge-based. When CD technology came to be used widely for data storage, most hardware companies moved from cartridges to CD-based game systems, since CD-ROMs were much cheaper to produce and could hold more content. Nintendo remained the lone hold-out, and did not create an optical-media based system until several years later, instead opting to make their next generation system, the Nintendo 64, cartridge-based. This move was questioned by many industry insiders, who argued that cartridge-based games could never be as long or complex as CD based games, such as those found on competitor systems like the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn, and that the relatively high manufacturing costs of cartridges compared to optical media would make cartridge based systems uncompetitive on price. The economic consequences Nintendo suffered as a result of this gamble are often regarded as marking the end of cartridge-based home gaming systems. However, despite the smaller storage capacity, Nintendo 64 cartridges enabled faster load times and stronger copy-protection features compared to it's competitors.
By 2001, improved loading times for disc-based games led Nintendo to release its next gaming system, the GameCube, with a proprietary mini DVD-based format that had greater copy-protection than the standard DVD. Games cartridge capacities are often misquoted. Although the '90s practice of citing memory capacity in 'megs'—deliberately not drawing the distinction between megabits and megabytes—has now disappeared, games software cartridges are still often described as '512 megabit' instead of the more meaningful '64 megabyte', for example.
One early form of automatic washing machine manufactured by Hoover used cartridges to programme different wash cycles. This system, called the Keymatic, used plastic cartridges with key-like slots and ridges around the edges. The cartridge was inserted into a slot on the machine and a mechanical reader operated the machine accordingly. The system did not really take off, since it offered no real advantage over the more conventional programme dial, and the cartridges were prone to getting lost. In hindsight it can be seen as a marketing gimmick rather than offering any really useful functionality.
As a result, the easiest solution was often to simply blow as hard as humanly possible in the slot/cartridge. This often solved simple blockage issues.