A Look Back at StripWare

It’s not what it sounds like

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Let me tell you about my favorite theoretical method of encoding and storing a large amount of data. I know, I know, but hear me out. This is good.

Illustrations from Aha! Gotcha

In his 1982 book Aha! Gotcha: Paradoxes to Puzzle and Delight, mathematician Martin Gardner tells this story:

Dr. Zeta is a scientist from Helix, a galaxy in another space-time dimension. One day Dr. Zeta visited the earth to gather information about humans. His host was an American scientist named Herman.

Herman: Why don’t you take back a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica? It's a great summary of all our knowledge.

Dr. Zeta: Splendid idea, Herman. Unfortunately, I can't carry anything with that much mass. However, I can encode the entire encyclopedia on this metal rod. One mark on the rod will do the trick.

Herman: Are you joking? How can one little mark carry so much information?

Dr. Zeta: Elementary, my dear Herman. There are less than a thousand different letters and symbols in your encyclopedia. I will assign a number from 1 through 9 to each letter or symbol, adding zeros on the left if needed so that each number used will have three digits.

Herman: I don't understand. How would you code the word cat?

Dr. Zeta: It's simple. We use the sort of code I just showed you. Cat might be coded 003001020.

Using his powerful pocket computer, Dr. Zeta scanned the encyclopedia quickly, translating its entire content into one gigantic number. By putting a decimal point in front of the number, he made it a decimal fraction.

Dr. Zeta then placed a mark on his rod, dividing it accurately into lengths a and b so that the fraction a/b was equivalent to the decimal fraction of his code.

Dr. Zeta: When I get back to my planet, one of our computers will measure a and b exactly, then compute the fraction a/b. This decimal fraction will be decoded, and the computer will print your encyclopedia for us!

The book is full of interesting thought experiments like this, but this is the one that stuck with me the most for some reason. I loved the idea that you could store something so large with just a single notch! But of course, Gardner is quick to point out that this works better in theory than in practice:

The difficulty is that the precision needed for marking such a rod is impossible to achieve. The mark would have to be enormously smaller than an electron, and the measurements of the two lengths would have to be precise on the same scale. If we assume that two lengths can be measured accurately enough to yield Dr. Zeta's fraction, then of course his procedure would work.

I was reminded of this impractical method of storing and retrieving data recently when I came across a real-world storage technology from the 80s that never quite caught on: StripWare.


Despite what its name sounds like, StripWare was not an early erotic video game. (I’m gonna check my analytics later but I’ll bet that link gets clicked the most). It was a form of software encoding that could be printed out on a strip of paper. It looked like this:

That strip of paper contains the game Checkers. It required special hardware to read the program, the Cauzin Softstrip System Reader. It was about the size of a large baguette and fit inconveniently on your desk.

Typical office worker for scale

This way, instead of buying software on disk, you could just scan it from a piece of paper. That paper could be in a computer magazine, or a special book of computer programs, or a brochure, or printed out on a laser printer.

Back then, computer magazines often had programs you could type into your own computer. It was tedious, manual work. Even MAD Magazine got into the fun with this intentionally-annoying-to-type-in program:

If you typed it all in like I did, this was your reward:

For these sorts of applications, printing a scannable strip alongside the program would be a real timesaver, at least for people with a Softstrip scanner.

Here’s a closer look at what one of those strips looks like, turned vertically:

Reading across, every pair of “blocks” on a line is either black-white or white-black, which the scanner reads as either a 1 or 0. Cauzin calls those block pairs “DiBits.” Then the reader software turns that binary code into text. There’s a little bit more to it, but that’s the gist of it. So that Checkers game above decodes to this BASIC program:

That’s… not a lot of data. Each strip could only hold around 5,500 bytes, and you could fit about 7 strips on a single piece of paper, for a total of 38.5 kb per page. That’s good enough to be an alternative to typing it in yourself, but not practical for larger software. For comparison, a low-density 5.25-inch floppy disk held about four times that per side.

The latest version of Microsoft Minesweeper is a bloated 235 megabytes, so to install the StripWare version of Minesweeper you’d just need to buy a 6,400 page book and scan 44,800 strips of code. Easy!

What was available

Obviously you couldn’t get the current version of Minesweeper back then. But there actually was a StripWare version of Minesweeper available in the Second Giant Book of Computer Games:

It was one of a handful of books with StipWare programs people could scan, including several available on the Internet Archive:

I really like the illustrations for these games. The actual games back then never looked very good, but the illustrations helped your imagination fill in the blanks.

Aside from the small amount of data that could be encoded, there were other problems with StripWare. It depended on good enough printing quality with enough contrast for the data to be readable, and if you ever wanted to scan it again you’d better keep it in good condition.

But while StripWare never really caught on, it has its place in history as the first commercial 2D barcode format. Today you may see data encoded in a similar way on the back of your driver’s license or work ID card. And it was a predecessor to the modern QR code.

Example of a QR Code

It’s a far less elegant data encoding method than simply putting a notch on a stick, which remains my favorite method. But until we can measure sticks on a subatomic scale, I guess it will do.

Thanks as always for reading! This is where I usually remind you that you can make a donation to help keep this kind of thing going. But today I did that up top so you already know that.

If you liked this edition of the newsletter, you’ll love the time I looked at The Strangest Computer Manual Ever Written.

See you next time!



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