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The history of the “Floppy Disk” and its relevance

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The history of the “Floppy Disk” and its relevance

The floppy disk emerged at the end of the 1960s and was an indispensable storage medium for the next two decades. Today, the floppy disk is a thing of the past, but it hasn’t completely disappeared. Because some industries still rely on them.

A book about the technical development of storage media could be entitled: “How do I manage to disappear completely?” Today, mobile storage is almost invisible or outsourced, think of cloud technology, for example. A large chapter in history occupies one storage medium in particular: the so-called “floppy disk”. Floppy disks have been indispensable for almost 20 years. The name “Floppy Disk” refers to the soft plastic cover that protects the magnetic disc underneath. Only later does the floppy disk get a hard shell, before the CD becomes the preferred storage medium. However, the disc has not completely disappeared from the scene.

The early years of the floppy disk

The first floppy disk in 1969 measures an impressive 8 inches and is roughly the size of a tablet. The storage capacity is 80 kilobytes, which corresponds to about 1000 punch cards – a common unit of measurement in the early days of computers. If we compare the memory with today’s standards, more than ten such floppy disks would have been necessary to store a smartphone image.

In the mid-1970s, a slightly smaller variant of the floppy disk established itself. The 5¼-inch floppy disk made the eyes of Commodore 64 owners light up. Because floppy disks and a corresponding drive significantly increased the fun of playing on the home computer back then. Up to 1,200 kilobytes now fit on the square, flimsy diskette, a multiple of the first variant. Still poor by today’s standards. After all, it would now usually only take a single floppy disk to save a smartphone photo.

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In 1982 the disc casing changed from “floppy” to “hard”. The 3.5 inch floppy disk is only the size of a beer coaster. Not much has changed in terms of storage capacity. The new generation of floppy disks can handle up to 1,440 kilobytes. If there had been digital cameras back then, one photo would have sufficed and the disc would have been full. In 1989, the compact disc – or CD for short – appeared as a storage medium. At this point we could end our article on the floppy disk. Actually, the world doesn’t need floppy disks anymore. But far from it. To this day, some industries still rely on the floppy disk. This is unlikely to change anytime soon.

This industry still uses floppy disk drives

Fear of flying now has to be brave: In fact, some planes still in use today have floppy disk drives. These serve as an interface to update necessary data. This can be the following information:

  • approach lanes,
  • airports,
  • flight schedules,
  • navigation or
  • slopes.

The Boeing 747-400 is such an aircraft where a technician updates the data every 28 days using eight 3.5-inch disks. Why so awkward?

Quite simply, the first models of this aircraft were built in the late 1980s. At that time, the engineers relied on the latest technology to load the aircraft database with current values. That’s why floppy disk drives were installed in the planes. Nothing has changed in this method to this day – true to the motto: Never change anything in a functioning system.

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Old machines and modern technology from back then

Even within the clothing industry or the metalworking industry, there are machines that still depend on floppy disks – for example knitting or crocheting machines and milling machines. Similar to aviation, the engineers attached great importance to using the machines for as long as possible.

Until recently, even nuclear weapons were controlled by floppy disks. The computers used for this date from the 1970s. In the US military, experts then reacted. The computers are still old, but the storage medium meets modern standards.

In the meantime, however, new problems have arisen. The supply of available floppy disks is decreasing day by day. Because new discs have not been produced since 2010. Verbatim continued production for a while, but stopped production after several changes of ownership.

“The last man alive in the floppy disk business”

You can still buy packs of 10 online. With prices starting at 20 euros and more, however, only nostalgic people buy it. These include above all artists. In the creative scene, the floppy disk finds a new purpose as a work of art together with music or video cassettes.

And then there is the American Tom Persky. According to his own statement, “the last living man in the disk business” currently has about half a million disks in all sizes in stock. He now runs his business online at www.floppydisk.com.

In fact, you can still find 8 or 5¼ inch floppy disks there. 3.5-inch floppy disks account for the largest share. However, these are discs recycled by Tom Persky himself. For the floppy disk fan one thing is certain: “Floppy disks are much more stable and reliable than USB drives.” There is only one thing left to add: The floppy disk is dead, long live the floppy disk!

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