Who Invented the Computer? Floppy Disks
Who Invented the Computer? This is the thirty-second installment in our ongoing series.
Once computers were successfully up and running, a new challenge aros: how to store data.
The first medium of choice was an old one, used by weavers since the early 1800s: the paper punch card. During weaving, a series of pins attached to a loom would detect the holes in the cards and direct the placement of individual threads, allowing intricate patterns to be woven on a piece of cloth.
When used on a computer, the punch card holes corresponded with numbers and characters that told the computer which calculations to perform and in what order. Punch cards did the job for a time, but they were bulky, easily damaged with handling, and woe betide the programmer who accidently dropped and scattered their cards on the ground.
Magnetic storage soon replaced punch cards. This method consisted of a large metal cylinder, coated with magnetic recording material, which could hold a few kilobytes of data. As the drum turned at high speeds, stationary read/write heads on the outside of the drum would read relevant pieces of data as they passed beneath them.
Magnetic tape was the next step forward in data storage. It was both easy to use and durable. Unfortunately, however, accessing data could be frustratingly slow as users had to wind and rewind the tape by hand. As computers continuously grew in power, it became evident that a better solution for storage and retrieval of data was needed.
Hard vs. Floppy
As computer scientists and engineers worked on improving storage methods, they also developed drives that could better read data. In 1956, IBM successfully wedded storage capacity with access speed by constructing a 50-foot-tall hard drive containing 50 memory platters encoded with data. For the time, the towering machine held an impressive five megabytes of memory. This behemoth was the precursor of the modern hard drive.
During the late 1960s, IBM and other companies raced to improve drives and useful storage methods. Big Blue did create a working prototype consisting of a data read-only device and a flexible encodable disk. Their proof of concept was good, but problems arose as dust particles fouled the disk. To remedy the problem, IBM enclosed the disk in a plastic sleeve lined with fabric to clean off any dust particles.
The first floppy disks sold commercially were released in 1971. They were 8-inches in diameter and worked in various IBM products. Improvements in disk drives came rapidly as more manufacturers entered the field. Shugart Associates of Sunnyvale, Calif., soon set the industry standard for disk drives with their SA-800 model that used the 8-inch floppy.
By 1976 IBM introduced an improved 8-inch floppy, the double-sided, single-density disk (DSSD) that could hold 500 kilobytes of data. They followed that up a year later with the 1.2 megabyte double-sided, single-density diskette (DSDD).
Although the 8-inch floppy was continuously refined to hold ever larger amounts of data, it had two weaknesses: It could be physically bent and data on the disk was corrupted or even erased if the disk came into close proximity with a strong magnetic field.
An additional problem occurred among novice computer users who misunderstood the written instructions printed on the envelope in which the disks were sold. Instead of “remove disk from envelope before using,” a surprising number of customers destroyed disks by tearing off the plastic shell. Full disclosure: I was one of them benighted souls. In my defense, I was only 14 years old at the time.
Shugart came out with a smaller model in 1976, the 5.25-inch disk. It held 98.5 kilobytes and sold for $1.50. The new disk was a big improvement and for the next decade, became the storage method of choice for computer users. As the quality of floppy drives improved, however, and ever more data could be stored in ever smaller areas, a smaller diskette was needed.
Manufacturers developed and experimented with various sizes of drives and floppies, among them the 2-inch, 2.5-inch, 3-inch, 3.25 inch, and 4-inch sizes. And then in 1981, the Sony Corporation came up with a marvelously simple piece of engineering, the 3.5-inch drive and floppy. It was a major advancement for floppies.
In addition to increased storage capacity, the 3.5-inch disk offered several other advantages over the 5.25-inch disk: It was impossible to insert it incorrectly into a drive, it came with a rigid plastic case that protected the disk, a sliding metal shutter to keep the disk dust-free, and an easy-to-use sliding tab so users could prevent accidental over-writing of their data.
Much to Sony’s surprise, the 3.5-inch disk and drive failed to sell as expected. This was due to the popularity of the 5.25-inch models. So many were in satisfactory use that few users saw a reason to change.
Sony’s marketing team kept plugging away, however, and finally in 1988 the 3.5-inch floppy and disk surpassed the old faithful 5.25-inch model. Still, for several years, computers manufacturers regularly sold PC’s equipped with both sizes of disk drive.
The 3.5-inch floppy dominated most of the 1990s. Until operating systems and games grew so large that they required a dozen disks or more to run. A new storage medium was needed. To meet the need, Sony developed high-density and SuperDisks that held much greater amounts of data. The new disks also required new and more expensive drives, something most users were reluctant to buy.
End of an Era
The reign of the 3.5-inch dish would ultimately end in the late 1990s when recordable CDs, DVDs and flash drives entered widespread use. These new storage devices held vastly greater amounts of data and were more durable than floppies. The floppy disk remained in use until the early 2000s, but by the end of 2006, less than two percent of commercial PCs had built-in floppy drives.
Just like punch cards and magnetic storage, the floppy had left center stage of computer data storage and retrieval, and even the vaunted CDs and DVDs have been surpassed today by cloud storage and integrated hard drives.
The 3.5-inch floppy was an impressive achievement, however. Though it is now considered obsolete, it remains in use by owners of wood lathes and embroidery shops, and in other arenas where legacy machinery predominates. Numerous federal agencies and even some airlines continue to use floppies for updating navigation systems.
Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the 3.5-inch disk is its use as the "Save" icon in numerous computer programs. It is likely that many people under the age of 25 who recognize the floppy disk symbol as a save command, have no idea where the image itself originated.
Nukes on Disk: Up until 2019, the Air Force was using 8-inch floppies to coordinate the "operational functions of the United States nuclear forces."
Would You Like a CRT Monitor With That?: You can still purchase floppy disks online at California-based FloppyDisk.com. The owner/operator reported that he still sells thousands of disks per week.