If you ask who invented the floppy disk, there are two claimants. One is Yoshiro Nakamatsu or just Dr. NakaMats who says he made the floppy disk in 1951 and then licensed it to IBM in 1979. However, IBM claims that it was invented by their team of engineers led by Alan Shugart in 1971.
When IBM came out with their floppy disk in 1971 it was called a memory disk and it was considered revolutionary for being the first of its kind. The first floppy was an 8 inch plastic disk that was flexible. Coated with magnetic iron oxide, data could be written onto it and then read from the surface of the disk. The term floppy came about due to its flexibility. Industry observers praised the disk because it provided a portable means of data transportation from one computer to another.
The IBM floppies invented by Shugart and his team were primarily intended for microcode loading into the IBM 3330 Merlin disk pack file. In other words, the earliest floppy disk was used to store data into another device. But it didn’t take long before other engineers found uses for it.
How the Floppy Disk Functions
Floppy disks have magnetic properties similar to that on a cassette tape. One or both of its sides could be used to record data. The disk drive will take hold of the disk in the middle, and then turn, very similar to the way a record is spun in its container. A floppy’s write/read is like a tape deck’s head, making contact with the surface via its plastic shell opening.
The 5 1/4-inch Floppy Disk
In 1976, Shugart and his team created the 5 1/4″ flexible disk and floppy drive. Shugart and his associates developed the disk because they wanted one that was easier to work with their computer. By 1978, manufacturers were already coming out with the 5 1/4″ floppy disks that could hold up to 1.2 MB. According to the story, An Wang, Don Massaro and Jim Adkisson, three of the engineers that were working on the project, were discussing in a bar what size it would be. An Wang simply pointed to a drink napkin and stated “about that size”.
The 3 1/2-inch Floppy Disk
While the 5 1/4-inch disk was well received, another version would soon appear. In 1981, Sony came out with the 3 1/2″ floppy diskette and drive. Unlike the flexible IBM floppies, these diskettes were stored in hard plastic. The first diskettes could store 400 KB but the later models were capable of storing 720K and then 1.44MB.
Increase in Popularity
As the 1980s were drawing to a close, the 3 1?2-inch disks superseded the 5 1?4-inch disks in popularity. By the middle of the 1990s the 5 1?4-inch disks could no longer be seen in the market as the 3 1?2-inch disk became the standard. Not only were the 3 1?2-inch disks smaller, but the hard casing made them more durable.
Floppy disks were ubiquitous in the 1980s and 1990s as the sale of personal computers went up. It is no wonder many ask who invented the floppy disk, because it was so important during those days. People used it to backup data, transfer files and distribute programs. However, floppy disks eventually became obsolete as software became large and larger, and CD ROMs became the preferred choice.