YugaTech #TBT: The Floppy Disk
This week on YugaTech Throwback Thursday, we’re going to look back on the Floppy Disk; how it got its name, and how the invention of this long-forgotten storage device has single-handedly changed the way people stored data and the computing industry in general.
Out with punch cards and tapes, and in with the Floppy
The year was 1967. IBM needed “a reliable and inexpensive” storage device that will be used to load microcode into their computers and will serve as viable alternative to then popular Cassette Tapes. The company turned to the late Alan Shugart (1930-2006) which is then the Product Manager of Direct Access Storage department.
(From left to right) 8-inch, 5.25-inch and 3.5-inch Floppy disks
Backed by a group of talented engineers, Shugart and his team first came up with an 8-inch read-only storage device they coined “memory disk”. It can hold 80-kilobyte’s worth of data which was a big thing during that time, considering that it’ll take tons of punch cards to replicate the same result.
But their creation had one major flaw – it was susceptible to dusts and scratches. Their solution was to place the bare disk inside a flexible plastic enclosure. The flimsy nature of the said enclosure gave birth to the memory disk’s nickname – Floppy.
IBM’s Floppy disk was just too big
Floppy was made available to the consumer market in 1971 and was an instant hit among the techie crowd. But only a year after its consumer release, Shugart left IBM and founded his own tech firm in 1973 which he named after himself (Shugart Associates).
Floppy disk drives
Two years after going solo, two of Shugart’s engineers namely Jim Adkinson and Don Massaro was approached by An Wang who is the founder of Wang Laboratories. Wang wanted a smaller storage device which he can use for his machines, but he also wanted it to be considerably cheaper than the 8-inch Floppy which was being retailed for USD200 a pop.
Fueled by this rather unusual proposition, Shugart and his team began working on their next project. In 1976 they pull out the rabbit from the hat and came up with the 5.25-inch Floppy disk which can handle 98.5KB of data. Shugart Associate hit a gold mine with the 5¼-incher and they’ve successfully overthrown the 8-inch version as the king of the hill.
Then a genius hippy stepped in…
Although Shugart’s firm was already winging it with their smaller Floppy, what really shifted the popularity of their creation to high gear was when Steve Jobs decided to make the transition from Data Cassettes to the 5.25-inch format for the Apple II in 1978.
The Apple II which uses two 5.25-inch Floppy disk drives instead of one
Job’s buddy and Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak, saw greater potentials on the 5 ¼-inch format which eventually led to the creation of the Disk II. Further down the line, Apple further refined their drives to increase performance for their new computers. The company made a total of 6 variations of the drive before they decided to jump aboard the compact floppy bandwagon in 1984.
Last evolution, before extinction
One of the things that made Shugart Associate’s disk popular was the fact that it was considerably smaller than IBM’s 8-incher. However, as time goes by, people wanted a smaller version of storage device, something that they can easily put inside their pockets.
This consumer need sparked a new trend which led to the creation of smaller versions of the popular storage device. Companies began manufacturing in smaller formats which ranged from 2-inch up to 4-inch, but it was Sony and its 3.5-inch Floppy disk that was considered by the Microfloppy Industry Committee as the standard in 1982.
But Sony was clever enough to not put all of its eggs in one basket. While the Japanese firm was developing the 3.5-inch floppy, they were also collaborating with Philips in coming up with digital audio discs that will replace the aging gramophone records. The partnership led to the creation of Compact Discs which eventually replaced Floppies as the go-to device for data storage.
The legacy lives on
Almost half a century since its invention, the concept behind the Floppy Disk is still being used up to this day in devices such as Hard Disk drives. Although it’s meant to serve as a tool for storing data, let’s not forget that Floppy disks also played a crucial role in software development and the evolution of personal computers.
The invention of Floppy disk truly is Alan Shugart’s invaluable gift to tech aficionados all over the world.