Happy Birthday to the floppy disk
May 28, 2022
Seven months too late, but better late than never, right?
Fifty (plus!) years ago, IBM birthed the floppy disk, and, eventually, that's how publishers distributed new software and how we saved files on our computers.
But why and how did the floppy disk come to be?
Early mainframe computers used core memory that kept information even when the power was off. Next, the mainframe computer industry moved to solid-state transistor memory, which was great, except it couldn't keep things in memory without power. When you shut down the computer, it "forgot" what it was supposed to do or be. So, the industry turned to stacks of punch cards or reels of magnetic tape to load the computer's system software.
Punch cards are a terrible way to load software (they have to be facing the right way and in the correct order), and reels of magnetic tape were too slow and bulky.
IBM figured there had to be a better way. So, in 1967, the search began for a removable storage medium that could retain information without power and was easy to transport.
An IBM engineering team led by David Noble designed a flexible plastic disc impregnated with iron oxide (sort of like a cassette tape) that could hold a magnetic charge. They put the disc in a plastic sleeve with fabric that swept away dust as the disc rotated.
IBM introduced the first floppy disk drive in 1971, known as the 23FD Floppy Disk Drive System. The 23FD system used 8" square disks that could only read about 80 kilobytes (KB) of data, not write it. Instead, a drive at IBM wrote data to the disks delivered to the customer so that they could run their IBM mainframe.
IBM called it a "floppy disk" because it could bend, not like the aluminum hard disks that came first.
In 1973, IBM shipped a refined version of the 8" floppy disk called the IBM Diskette, known as the 33FD. The 33FD diskettes held about 250 KB of data, and you could write data to it! The diskette replaced about 3,000 punch cards and was small, portable, and cheap.
Soon, other companies began making 8" floppy drives, and a standard was born.
When personal computers came along in the mid-70s, 8" floppy disk drives were too big and expensive, so most early adopters stuck to paper tape or cassette drives for data on their personal computers. In 1976, Shugart Associates invented the 5.25" floppy drive. This and Steve Wozniak's Disk II system for the Apple II brought floppy disk storage to everyone by the late 1970s.
The first 5.25" floppies held about 88 KB of data. In 1982, we had a high-density 5.25" floppy that could hold 1.2 megabytes (MB) of data.
In 1983, companies began shipping 3.5" floppy drives designed by Sony. Initial 3.5" disks held 360KB single-sided or 720 KB double-sided. We got 3.5" diskettes with 1.44 MB capacity a few years later.
With so many people using floppy disks to save data on their computers, software programs with Graphical User Interfaces in the 80s and 90s used the familiar floppy disk as the save icon. The fancy term for using a physical object as an icon to show the icon's meaning is called skeuomorphism.
Most current software still uses the floppy disk icon to save a file, even though most people clicking on the icon have never actually used a floppy disk.
Even with competition from CD-ROM drives, CD-RW disks, and USB drives, BIOS updates and device drivers for computers were distributed on 3.5 floppy disks until the mid-2000s.
Eventually, computer manufacturers stopped including floppy disk drives in new computers. Then, in 2011, Sony stopped producing floppy disks altogether.
If someday you're cleaning out a drawer and find some old floppy disks, but your computer doesn't have a floppy disk drive, don't worry. You can still buy an external USB floppy drive to look at those old disks. But the magnetic media in the floppy disk probably has deteriorated, and you may not be able to read anything on them. But maybe not!
When I was your age
The internet went SKAWEE RUREE WEEWERRRRRT BOOP
Do you have a computer or technology question? Greg Cunningham has been providing Tehachapi with on-site PC and network services since 2007. Email Greg at email@example.com.