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Floppy Disks

3.5-inch inch floppy disk drive

The 3.5-inch format was the last mass-produced floppy disk format, replacing 5.25-inch floppies by the mid-1990s. It was more durable than previous floppy formats since the packaging was rigid plastic with a sliding metal shutter. It was eventually made obsolete by CDs and flash drives.

Storage on the cheap: Floppy Disks

Magnetic hard disks transformed data storage, but were initially large and expensive. That was fine for mainframes, but personal computers needed something else. And the alternative already existed: the floppy disk.

In the 1970s and 1980s, floppy disks were the primary storage device for word processors and personal computers, and became the standard way to distribute software.

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SA-400 5.25-inch floppy disk drive

Word processing manufacturers like Wang were anxious for disks smaller than 8 inches. The design that became the popular 5.25-inch disk was inspired by the size of a cocktail napkin. Because the drive could fit inside a PC case, it revolutionized personal data storage.

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23FD “Minnow” flexible disk drive (prototype)

The Minnow was a read-only drive that loaded factory-written microcode into mainframe computers. It was the predecessor of a family of low-cost "floppy" drives which become indispensible for word processors and PCs.

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The Floppy Disk: from Mainframe to PC

How to preserve the data when the power goes off? That was the conundrum confronting IBM engineers.

The System/370 was IBM’s first computer using read/write semiconductor memory for its microcode. But without power, its microcode disappeared and had to be reloaded. The solution, delivered in 1971, was an 8” diameter flexible Mylar disk holding 80KB.

Al Shugart left IBM to make floppy disk drives for small computers. Competition soon stimulated smaller sizes and higher capacities, and floppy disks played a critical role in the rapid growth of PCs.

Steve Jobs with Apple II and disk drives

The 5.25-inch floppy disk provided inexpensive storage and software distribution for PCs. With two drives, disks could be easily copied.

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IBM PC with floppy disk drive

Although the IBM PC could be used with an audiocassette recorder instead of a floppy disk drive, few were sold without a floppy.

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Zip disk

Various companies made proprietary higher-capacity disks with packages similar to – but incompatible with – the 3.25-inch standard. Iomega’s 100 MB ZIP disk was halfway between a floppy disk and a hard disk.

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3.25-inch floppy disk

The 3.25-inch floppy disk format was the last mass-produced format, replacing 5.25-inch floppies by the mid-1990s. It was more durable than previous floppy formats since the packaging was rigid plastic with a sliding metal shutter. It was eventually made obsolete by CDs and flash drives.

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5.25-inch floppy disk

The 5.25-inch floppy disk, a scaled-down version of IBM’s 8-inch disk, held about 100KB. But having the same soft jacket, they were no more robust.

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8-inch floppy disk

The first floppy was developed in IBM’s San Jose facility, home of the original hard disk. It stored about 80KB. A key invention was the soft wipe inside the disk’s jacket to reduce wear.

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Zip 100 drive

Like hard disks but unlike other floppies, ZIP drives used a non-contact read/write head that “flew” above the surface. Reliability problems and low-cost CDs eventually made ZIP disks obsolete.

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