It may seem as though they were here and gone in the blink of an eye, but they were an office staple for a surprising forty years. Invented by Big Blue itself — IBM — the floppy disk is an external computer storage format made up of a thin, flexible (floppy) magnetic disk, sealed in a rigid (non-floppy) plastic casing to keep the memory medium itself free from dust and other nasties.
Introduced commercially in 1971 (at 8 inches in size), by today’s standards, floppy disks held eye-wateringly small amounts of data. The first widely used five-and-a-quarter-inch formats had a storage capacity of a massive 360Kb of information. Over the years, the floppies gradually evolved to become smaller in size and larger in storage capacity. The first 3.5-inch floppies had a limit of 720Kb, later improved to a massive 1.44Mb.
1.44Mb. That’s less than the storage requirement of one photograph taken with my iPhone today. (And that phone stores hundreds.)
They were recalcitrant little beasts, the floppies. (IBM tried to call them diskettes but it never caught on.) The five-and-a-quarter-inch ones were prone to being rendered unreadable: they bent when you put them in your briefcase, and were plagued by dust. All of them could be wiped pristine by magnetism. Yet, for years and years throughout the 1980s and 1990s, floppies were the primary means of storing our precious files as back-up and transferring data between computers. (We didn’t have much in the way of email back then, and hadn’t even dreamed of “the cloud”.)
But the world was marching on. Recordable CDs arrived with greater storage capacity. Re-writable CDs became affordable. Networking and the widespread adoption of USB memory sticks and ports sounded the death knell. Now, if you want to read the information on one of those old floppy disks, you have to buy special archaeological tools. No computers ship, these days, with a device for reading them.
Still, those of us who remember the clunking sound of our Amstrad booting itself up from its floppy-disk drive (the A drive) and putting the disk containing our stored files to be read in the B drive will smile at the memories. (That’s why the hard-memory drive in your laptop today is bewilderingly called the C drive: A and B were already taken by the soft memory.)
It makes me smile, too, that even today, if I save this Word file, I save it via a little picture of a floppy disk. A piece of outdated iconography if ever there was. There are people using computers today who have never seen a floppy disk, neither the five-inch version on which I saved my first writings, nor the double-density, slightly less floppy, later versions. Yet we happily invoke their memory every time we Save or Save As.
A fitting tribute to the world’s first easily portable electronic information format.
I wonder how long those icons will last?