Home history Floppy disk storage Floppy disk storage
The once-ubiquitous data storage device gave rise to the modern software industry
A hand holding a floppy disk in front of a pile of punched cards

Floppy disks have become a rare sight, but not so long ago they were everywhere you looked. More than 5 billion floppy disks were sold annually at their peak in the mid-1990s. For more than two decades, the IBM-invented disk was the primary means to store files, distribute software, create backups and transfer data between computers.

The unassuming floppy — little bigger than a drink coaster — turned out to be one of the most influential computer products ever introduced. Floppies spurred the personal computer revolution and the emergence of an independent software industry.

Until the late 1970s, most software applications for tasks such as word processing and accounting were written by the PC owners themselves. The advent of the floppy disk meant that software companies could write programs, put them on the disks, and sell them through the mail or in stores.


Project Minnow

The floppy got its start at IBM’s data storage skunkworks in San Jose, California, at what was then called the IBM San Jose Research Lab (now the IBM Research-Almaden Lab). In 1967, a small team of engineers under the leadership of David L. Noble started to develop a reliable and inexpensive system for loading instructions and installing software updates into mainframe computers. The big machines were already equipped with hard disk drives, also invented by IBM engineers, but many people still used paper punched cards for data entry and software programming.

The team considered using magnetic tape at first, but then, in a project code-named “Minnow,” they switched to a flexible Mylar disk coated with magnetic material that could be inserted through a slot into a disk drive mechanism and spun on a spindle. The disks had a large circular hole in the center to allow the magnetic medium to spin and a small oblong opening in both sides to enable the drive’s heads to read and write data.

The first floppies got dirty easily, so the team packaged them in slim envelopes equipped with an innovative dust-wiping element, making it possible to handle and store them easily. IBM began selling floppy disk drives in 1971 and received US patents for the drive and floppy disk in 1972.

The floppy disk made it possible to easily load software and updates onto mainframe computers and quickly became the most widely used storage medium for small systems. “I had no idea how important it would become and how widespread,” recalled Warren L. Dalziel, the lead inventor of the floppy disk drive.

I had no idea how important it would become and how widespread Warren L. Dalziel Lead inventor of the floppy disk drive
1970s high-density storage

The original 8-inch floppy disk had the capacity of 3,000 punched cards. Because many companies still relied on punched card systems for data entry, IBM adapted its punched card data entry machines so the operators could easily shift from loading data on paper cards to putting it on disks.

In 1977, Apple introduced the Apple II, which came with two 5¼-inch floppy drives, which were supplied by Shugart Associates, a company started by IBMers. The first IBM PC, introduced in 1981, was available with two floppy drives. Users typically loaded an application in one drive and stored data on a diskette in the other. In 1984, IBM introduced the high-density floppy disk for the PC; it stored 1.2 megabytes of data — sizable at the time. Two years later, IBM introduced the 3½-inch floppy disk that featured 1.44 megabytes of storage space and a plastic case surrounding the internal disk, a format that became the mainstay of computing in the 1990s. The 3½-inch disks were more compact and had higher storage capacity, and the rigid case provided better protection.

The advent of the floppy was a great convenience for individual users, but it also marked a true step forward in the structure of the IT industry. Up until the late 1970s, most software applications were written by the PC owners themselves. Now companies could write programs and sell them on disks through the mail or in stores. “It made it possible to have a software industry,” said Lee Felsenstein, a pioneer of the PC industry who designed the Osborne 1, the first mass-produced portable computer. Before networks became widely available for PCs, people used floppies to share programs and data with each other — calling it the “sneakernet.”

It made it possible to have a software industry Lee Felsenstein A pioneer of the PC industry
The legacy of the floppy
A revolution in the workplace

The floppy revolutionized the work environment. People were no longer tied to a single computer because they could transfer data easily between machines. An office worker could save documents on a disk at the end of the day and load them onto a home computer to finish that night. A college student could save a research paper on a floppy disk and submit it to the professor to read and grade on an office computer.

As software programs ballooned in size, they became increasingly difficult to install on a computer using floppy disks. For example, the diskette version of Windows 95 comprised 13 diskettes that had to be installed one at a time. As the profit margins for floppy drives shrank and new storage technologies emerged, IBM got out of the floppy disk business, and other companies soon followed. By the mid-2000s, floppies had gone the way of the punched card.

While floppy disks still see limited use in legacy computer equipment, they have been replaced by a procession of data-storage methods with much greater capacity and data transfer speeds, from CD-ROMs, USB flash drives and memory cards to optical disks and cloud storage. But the influence of the floppy on computing lives on. The floppy helped jump-start the software industry, which racks up more than USD 500 billion in revenue annually. And to this day, a tiny icon of a floppy disk appears on many computer desktops as the symbol for saving files. It’s a fitting legacy for a true computer icon.

Related stories Magnetic tape

A breakthrough storage medium drew inspiration from a vacuum cleaner

The IBM punched card

The paper on-ramp to the Information Age once held most of the world's data

Optical storage

A new combination of materials and lasers revolutionized data access and retrieval