Floppy disks: These disks were a hit

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The year is 1969: Willy Brandt becomes Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Neil Armstrong is the first person to step on the moon, the Arpanet, the forerunner of today’s Internet, goes into operation – and the then dominant computer manufacturer IBM distributes updates for its mainframe system 370 “on eight inch (20.3 centimeters) diameter disks. They were designed at IBM under the direction of Alan Shugart since 1967 – but he always emphasized that David Noble was initially entrusted with the actual development. The first floppy disk was officially released in 1971, 50 years ago – not even IBM can remember the exact date.

This, under the code name Minnow (“Minnow”, a small fish) projected storage media should initially only solve one shipping problem: The IBM machines were able to read additional microcode when started, which IBM regularly updated. Sending it to customers on the magnetic tapes customary at the time was cumbersome because the tapes were bulky and expensive. The minnow should fit in an envelope and should cost no more than five US dollars.

Noble experimented with single records with a diameter of 17.5 centimeters (7 inches), endless audio cassettes (“cartridges”) and a plastic sheet called Dictabelt that could only be used once – unsuccessfully. The team has expanded; In the end, 25 people (including Donald L. Wartner and Herbert E. Thompson) tinkered with the new medium – apparently inspired by a Telefunken dictation machine that worked with rotating magnetic disks.

The first prototypes still worked with bare magnetic foils, but the errors caused by dust were too serious. The memories, known as “floppy” because of their sloppy disks, were quickly given a protective cover that also cleaned the disk. According to some sources, the first “System 370” with floppy disk drives were delivered in 1969; the read-only drives officially came on the market in 1971. The “23FD” designated floppy disks had a capacity of 80 kilobytes, which corresponded to around 3000 punch cards.

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Ever smaller, ever more memory: the evolution of floppy disks was eventually overtaken by the CD.

(Image: George Chernilevsky, public domain)

The patent for it was only granted in 1973 – a year earlier Memorex had already presented a writable variant of the technology. IBM followed in 1973 with a writable floppy and called it 33FD – now with 242 KByte. These discs, their further developments as well as variants from DEC and other providers were initially reserved for mainframes. Floppies first came to the attention of normal consumers with the 5 ¼ inch version (13.4 centimeters).

Alan Shugart had started his own company in 1975; At lunch (according to other sources in the evening in a bar) with his engineers Jim Adkisson and Don Massaro, An Wang, founder of the PC manufacturer of the same name, complained about the bulky 8-inch floppy disk. He needed more manageable data carriers and drives for his microcomputers. When Adkisson asked what size Wang had in mind, he pointed to a folded napkin. In December 1976, the SA-400 model, which cost 390 US dollars, was the first 5 ¼ inch floppy drive with a capacity of 110 Kbytes. The demand was so great that Shugart Panasonic (then the company operated under Matsushita) as an OEM supplier.

In 1980, Commodore launched the 8050, the first floppy disk drive for the manufacturer’s home computers. Since they did not have their own controller for the data drive, the devices contained almost a complete computer for drive control. With the IBM PC introduced in 1981, the 5 ¼ inch floppies finally hit the mass market.

Both 8 and 5 ¼ inch floppy disks were initially available with one data layer, later on both sides became the standard. Hobbyists transformed one-sided media into double-sided media with a punch; The 160 KB of the UR IBM PC floppy disks were initially double-sided with 360 KB, later “High Density” floppies with 1.2 MB.

A year before the IBM PC was launched, Sony began developing the 3½ floppy disk (9 centimeters), which was in a solid, no longer “floppy” housing, but was still called that. It appeared in 1983 as a DD variant with 720 to 880 KByte (depending on the PC – each operating system formatted the physically identical disks differently and of course not compatible), later there was also an HD variant of this. For Japanese IBM PCs the version was 1.2 MB, the version for the rest of the world was 1.4 MB. The corresponding switching option can be found in the BIOS of older computers. Before transfers over telephone lines and the Internet replaced the dispatch of data carriers, this particular feature caused a lot of frustration in international companies. The first Mac from Apple also came with this type of drive – which company founder Steve Jobs didn’t know at first.

In addition to the widespread floppies, manufacturers threw large quantities of special formats onto the market. The PCs from Amstrad and Schneider, which were popular for a time, had their own 3-inch floppy disks (7.6 centimeters); a particularly compact 2-inch floppy disk (5 centimeters) was introduced for analog still cameras.

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