Future Tense: Floppy History

Maximum PC Staff

The first time I saw a floppy disk, the person holding it was wearing bell-bottom jeans and a tie-dyed T-shirt.  (Yes, I am that old.)

The 8-inch floppy was designed by Alan Shugart and David Noble at IBM.  It was introduced to the market in 1971 as part of the System 370.  Prior to that, data had been stored either on tape or punch cards.  (“Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate.”)  The first floppy disk came to market in a black protective sleeve 8-inches across—it stored an astonishing 80 kilobytes of Read-Only data.

When Shugart left IBM in ‘72 and went to work at Memorex, he and his team developed the first read/write floppy.  They were called ‘floppy’ because they really were.  Inside that stiff protective sleeve was a very thin, floppy sheet of mylar, covered with brown industrial rust—essentially magnetic tape that could be spun in a circle.  When spun fast enough the disk presented a somewhat rigid surface to the read/write head.

The first personal computers showed up in 1975.  IMSAI and Altair marketed S-100 systems.  You got them to work by toggling instructions in, one bit at a time.  8-inch disk drives still cost more than the computer.  But in 1976, Wang Laboratories proposed a 5¼-inch ‘mini-floppy’ and within two years it was the standard for “microcomputers.”  (That’s what we called personal computers then—microcomputers.)

My first computer was a Northstar Horizon, running a 2mhz Zilog Z-80 on an S-100 motherboard.  That was state of the art in 1978.  With 64kb of RAM, and two minifloppies, a clock card, a parallel port card, a video card, a monochrome terminal, and a daisy-wheel printer, the whole thing came to nearly 10 kilobucks.

At that time, a 5¼-inch floppy could hold 90K.  The Horizon came with its own operating system Northstar DOS, but within a year, Gary Kildall’s CP/M operating system was available on minifloppies and it quickly became the standard operating system for Z-80 machines.  You could run WordStar, dBase II, Turbo Pascal, and Lotus 1-2-3 on CP/M and it became the standard OS for microcomputers for nearly two years…until IBM introduced its first PC.

Microcomputers had been mostly viewed by the corporate world as something that hobbyists played with.  IBM’s entry into the market created credibility for the idea of a desktop computer.  IBM’s machines were 16-bit machines running MS-DOS on 8088 chips, the beginning of the x86 architecture.

Almost immediately, the IBM-PC established itself as the industry standard.  A lot of clones hit the market, all of them advertised as “IBM-compatible.”  At the time, few people realized that it wasn’t IBM-compatibility that was important—it was the ability to run MS-DOS.  And Flight Simulator!  Flight Simulator was the real benchmark for compatibility.

The storage capacity of floppies also increased.  Double-sided disks let a user store 180kb and later on, ‘double-density’ formatting increased the storage capacity of the 5¼-inch floppy to 360kb.  That was the standard for several years.

In those days, all software was distributed on 5¼ inch floppies.  If you attended the earliest Computer Faires in San Francisco, or one of the various swap meets that sprung up around the country, you saw software sold on floppies in plastic bags.  As the market grew, floppies were tucked into printed manuals and later even shrink-wrapped.  Eventually software came in boxes, although some purists thought that was extravagant and gaudy.  But inside the box, the software still came on a floppy.

This was before affordable hard drives.  Everything was done on floppies.  Everything.  The average user had boxes of carefully labeled floppies and the computer magazines regularly ran articles on how to safely store floppies, the importance of making backup copies, and why you shouldn’t stick a floppy to the fridge with a magnet.

But very quickly, users hit the data-ceiling.  360K wasn’t enough storage and it took too long to read and write a disk.  Loading programs took time.  Searching data on a disk took time.  (Thankfully, we’re long past those interminable delays.) (Yes, that was sarcasm.)  Clever programmers used indexing and hash tables and other tricks to speed up the process, but it was clear that the 5¼-inch floppy was a bottleneck.

In the early ‘80s, affordable hard drives began showing up—some held 5 megabytes, 10 megabytes, and some held even a whopping 20-megabytes!  (Stop laughing.  That was a big deal then.)  But transferring data from one machine to another still required the use of a floppy, and if you had files larger than 360kb, you had no easy way to get them out of one machine and into another.  Even if you could SPLIT and JOIN large files, you still needed multiple disks.  And if you lost disk 7 of 9, then you were proably attached to another object by an inclined plane, wrapped helically around an axis.  (Screwed.)

Apple introduced “the computer for the rest of us” in 1984.  It was called a Macintosh.  It came with a 9-inch b/w screen and 128K of RAM.  (Reviewers considered it underpowered and overpriced.)  But it also had a graphic user-interface (GUI) and a 3½ inch floppy in a rigid plastic case.  Despite its smaller size, this “floppy” could hold 720 kilobytes of data.  Two years later, the recording density was doubled to 1.4 megabytes.

This form factor quickly became an industry standard and began showing up in MS-DOS machines almost immediately.  But for a while, most machines on the market came with two disk drives so they could read both 5¼-inch and 3-inch floppies.

The introduction of the R/W CD-ROM made it possible to distribute 700 megabytes of data on a single plastic disc.  Optical drives were faster and plastic discs were more rugged than magnetic floppies.  But the floppy held on throughout the nineties.

And that (finally!) brings me to the point.

I’ve been seriously cleaning out my house, exorcising the detritus of the past. In one of the boxes, I found a shrinkwrapped copy of MS-DOS 6.0.  (That might be useful on an older laptop. I have some DOS games I’d like to revisit, and Home Premium doesn’t include XP mode.)  I also found a 3½ inch floppy with some midi files that I wanted to have a listen to.

That was when I realized…none of my current computers have floppy drives.  Not my desktop, neither of my laptops.  (Thinkpad X40 and Thinkpad X61.)  In fact I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d seen or used a floppy disk.  Sometime in the past decade and a half, the floppy disk had faded so completely from my consciousness that I hadn’t even noticed its absence.

I’ve gotten so used to sharing files and photos on USB flash-drives that the discovery of a forgotten floppy was actually startling.  I thought I’d gotten rid of all of them a long time ago.  Meanwhile, I must have a dozen flash drives in a box in my desk.  The smallest and oldest flash is 256 megabytes.  The newest and largest is 16gb.  (And I think it’s also the cheapest.  Thank you, Gordon Moore!)

So my first impulse was to ask myself who I knew who might still have a machine with a floppy drive—then I realized I still had a Thinkpad 600x in a box on the shelf.  I bought it in 1999 and if I remembered correctly, it might have had an external floppy drive.  I got it down, opened the box—yes it did have an external floppy.  I dusted everything off, plugged it all in, and powered it up.  It was running XP, which now (a year after Windows 7) looked ancient and alien to me.

Okay, I could read the files off the floppy.  But now, how could I get them across to another machine?  The 600x did not have built in wi-fi.  But I did have a USB wi-fi dongle, if only I had a place to plug it in.

I didn’t remember the 600x having a USB port.  In 1999, when it was new, there weren’t a lot of USB peripherals.  You still connected your printer to a parallel port and everything else had its own unique plug.  I didn’t remember half the connectors on this thing, I’d forgotten how inconvenient that was, but tucked away near the rear of the left side of the machine, behind a black panel, was an unfamiliar square opening that looked a little bit like a USB port.  Could it be?  I grabbed a USB dongle to test it…and yes, it fit!  It was a USB port.  I plugged in a flash drive, the operating system recognized it, and I was able to copy 25 midi files, 739kb, in just a few seconds—so fast, I had to double-check that the files had actually copied.

Here’s the punch line.

It wasn’t a flash drive I copied the files to.

It was only a tiny USB adapter, as small as my thumbnail.  It held a 32-gigabyte micro-SDHC card.

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