Home Technology The Rise and Fall of 3M’s Floppy Disk

The Rise and Fall of 3M’s Floppy Disk

The Rise and Fall of 3M’s Floppy Disk


A model of this put up initially appeared onTedium, Ernie Smith’s e-newsletter, which hunts for the top of the lengthy tail.

Should you ask the typical particular person what the corporate 3M does, odds are if they’ve just a few grey hairs hanging out on their scalp, they may say that the corporate makes floppy disks. Now, this was as soon as true, however
when you look on 3M’s personal web site, you will notice no point out of this legacy—it’s a agency that sells abrasive supplies, adhesive tapes, filters, movies, private protecting tools, and medical tools. (Youthful individuals, in the event that they acknowledge 3M, it’s most likely due to Put up-it notes, or extra lately its N95 masks)

Floppies have had a surprisingly lengthy life—in January 2024,
Japan introduced it’s going to not require floppy-disk copies of presidency submissions. However 3M acquired out of the data-storage enterprise about 28 years in the past, when it transferred its floppy disk manufacturing to a spin-off referred to as Imation. Imation continues to be round, beneath the identify Glassbridge Enterprises, however with a a lot smaller profile.

One yellow and one orange Imation 3M 3 u00bd inch floppy diskettes on a gray background.3M’s spin-off, Imation, continued producing floppy disks after 3M itself left the enterprise. IEEE Spectrum

Even with that stated, these gray-hairs will continuously declare that of the numerous makers of floppies on the market, 3M made the very best ones. Provided that, I used to be curious to determine precisely why 3M grew to become probably the most memorable model in information storage throughout the formative days of computing, and why it deserted the product.

How 3M Turned a Key Innovator within the Manufacturing of Magnetic Information Storage

Now, to be clear, 3M didn’t invent magnetic storage—that was finished by Austro-German engineer
Fritz Pfleumer, in 1928. He created audio tape, a recording medium that began as broad strips of paper coated with iron-powder granules, and finally moved to less-fragile cellulose acetate with assist from what would turn out to be one other huge identify in floppy disks, BASF. At first, the innovation didn’t unfold outdoors of Germany due to World Struggle II.

Nor was 3M the primary firm to popularize magnetic media—
that was Ampex, which commercialized the tape recorder within the late Forties. That was the purpose when magnetic tape become a serious innovation on the earth of music—one which, famously, Bing Crosby acquired to first as a result of he gave monetary help to Ampex. By the way, Ampex’s later spinoff, Memorex, represented Silicon Valley’s first true startup.

“Of all the companies 3M has shed over its 100 years, the 2 seminal selections that folks level to as most vital concerned the sale of 3M’s Duplicating Merchandise enterprise to Harris Company in Atlanta, Georgia, and the spin-off of 3M’s data-storage and imaging-systems companies in 1996 creating a brand new firm referred to as Imation in Oakdale, Minnesota…”

Earlier than World Struggle II, one firm did try to manufacture a tape recorder within the U.S. based mostly on Pfluemer’s magnetic-tape invention. That agency, the Brush Growth Co.,
had developed a tool referred to as the Soundmirror, produced by a Hungarian inventor named Semi J. Begun, who was probably one thing of a competitor to Pfleumer: Additionally a German, he had moved to the USA and developed a steel-based magnetic tape. The invention was utilized by the U.S. army throughout the battle, and the corporate revisited the concept instantly after. However, it wanted somebody to fabricate magnetic tape for it to make use of.

As writer David Morton famous in his 2006 e-book
Sound Recording: The Life Story of a Know-how, 3M was one of many best-suited firms available on the market to assist Brush out. That’s as a result of the groundbreaking work that the corporate had finished to develop pressure-sensitive adhesive tape was a vital component of constructing magnetic tape efficient.

Black and white historical photo of a man in worker overall and a cap applying newspaper and tape to an old car.3M’s adhesive-tape expertise transferred readily to magnetic tape. 3M

Unusually sufficient, Richard Gurley Drew, the inventor of a lot of 3M’s tape expertise, was a musician—he performed banjo in an area orchestra—when he took a job with the corporate. He most likely didn’t notice he was inventing a key component of Twentieth-century recording expertise when he noticed that auto physique outlets wanted a approach to “masks off” areas of autos that had been being whittled down with sandpaper, however his statement would show helpful to the invention of masking tape.

Zoom in of disordered rectangles on the left and ordered rectangles on the right, over advertisement text. Within the mid-Nineteen Fifties, 3M marketed its Scotch audio reel-to-reel tape.Audio Journal/Web Archive/Scotch

As Smithsonian Journal notes, the formulation he developed, combining cabinetmaker’s glue with glycerin, proved to be simply the fitting degree of easy-to-remove adhesive that it grew to become an out-and-out phenomenon. You may know his invention, developed in 1925, as Scotch Tape.

In 1930, he adopted it up with one other invention that was much more wonderful—tape comprised of cellophane, which by its nature was completely clear. One other 3M worker developed the tape dispenser, and the 2 innovations reshaped workplaces the world over.

So, when Brush appeared to others to provide its recording medium, 3M was effectively positioned to assist out as a result of magnetic tape’s similarity with its Scotch Tape. Brush finally moved to different producers, like Dupont. However the expertise led 3M to proceed growing metal-oxide tape expertise, resulting in the creation of the Scotch 111 reel-to-reel tape, which was probably the most fashionable varieties utilized in recording studios all through the Nineteen Fifties, in response to the
Museum of Magnetic Sound Recording.

I admittedly have lengthy had a fascination with these reel-to-reel tapes. Quite a lot of years in the past, again once I lived in Milwaukee, I discovered a few clean reel-to-reel tapes created by 3M utilizing the Scotch identify. I purchased them from a junk retailer, and perhaps paid $2 for them. They managed to comply with me by way of three states and 5 cities, and now sit on
my deliberately organized pile of junk. Based mostly on my evaluation of the container and the logotype it makes use of, they date to the mid-Sixties or earlier. (No, I’ve not tried to file on them.)

A hand holds a rectangular package labeled Scotch magnetic tape.I’ve owned this clean Scotch 150 reel-to-reel tape for practically 20 years. It’s 50 to 60 years previous. Ernie Smith

For years, 3M’s reel-to-reels had one of many strongest reputations within the music business; they had been constructed to be of superhigh high quality. However you could be questioning, how did 3M make the leap from reel-to-reel tape to floppies? It looks like simply as unusual a leap as a masking tape firm growing reel-to-reel audio tape.

However, once more, it occurred.

How 3M’s Tapes Went From Music to Information

3M didn’t develop the floppy disk drive, both.
IBM did, and Shugart Associates additional improved it by making it sufficiently small for normal customers.

One 3M 5 u00bcu201d Floppy disk in a sleeve stands against a gray background.3M manufactured a signature 5.25-inch floppy disk. IEEE Spectrum

However 3M, a lot as with mechanical tape, was effectively positioned to enhance on it, leveraging its expertise with mechanical media within the budding computing business. In a manner, 3M got here to media manufacturing from the wrong way than its disk-selling competitor Memorex did. Memorex began with computer systems and steadily got here to develop and enhance tape-based expertise, which finally developed into floppy disks. Then again, 3M began with the uncooked supplies and the manufacturing processes, and mixed these into computing’s biggest commodity merchandise, the floppy disk.

3M acquired into the floppy disk market across the
fall of 1973. It was not the one producer of disks on the market—some names from this period embrace Verbatim, Management Information, Dysan, and BASF. Most of those firms began with computing expertise—for instance, Dysan labored carefully with Shugart Associates on the 5.25-inch floppy. However 3M wasn’t alone in beginning with the uncooked supplies. BASF, a German chemical producer, has a considerably related company historical past and emblem design to fellow thick-Helvetica fanatic 3M. (Although 3M clearly by no means related to the Nazis throughout World Struggle II, so there’s that.)

Four different magnetic storage devices on a purple background. 3M branched out past commonplace floppy disks with a wide range of magnetic-tape storage media.ComputerWorld/Google Books/3M

3M didn’t relaxation on its laurels with the floppy disk both, and tried to push the expertise additional, most notably with
Floptical disk expertise, which Jim Adkisson, who helped create the 5.25-inch floppy at Shugart Associates, developed within the Eighties. A partnership of 3M, Maxell, and Iomega created the Floptical disk, which may maintain 20 megabytes of knowledge on one thing that appeared quite a bit like a 3.5-inch floppy. Sadly the floptical disk flopped, dropping out to merchandise like Iomega’s iconic Zip drives.

3M additionally labored in additional specialised media, growing high-capacity optical disks that match into commonplace floppy and optical disk mechanisms, in addition to high-end tape drives meant for the server room relatively than your cassette participant.

In some ways, 3M was out entrance on probably the most vital parts of computing and was making big income from it. However by the top of 1995, these days had been finished. What modified?

3M marketed its floppy disk as extra dependable than the competitors in no unsure phrases.

What Led 3M to Kick a Multibillion-Greenback Enterprise to the Curb

By 1995, 3M’s magnetic-media arm had developed right into a US $2.3 billion enterprise, in response to
Time, which made it a major chunk of 3M’s total providing.

However at the moment, excessive expertise—
particularly shopper expertise—was beginning to seem like a foul wager for legacy firms. This was across the similar interval that AT&T, nonetheless smarting from misadventures just like the EO Private Communicator, spun off Bell Labs as Lucent Applied sciences.

3M’s story, in its personal phrases, suggests an identical disaster of tradition. In
A Century of Innovation, a e-book revealed by the corporate in 2002, across the time of its 100-year anniversary, the corporate in contrast the creation of the spin-off, which it referred to as “probably the most wrenching determination in its historical past,” to that of its dedication eight years earlier to promote its Duplicating Merchandise Division, which bought copying machines:

Of all the companies 3M has shed over its 100 years, the 2 seminal selections that folks level to as most vital concerned the sale of 3M’s Duplicating Merchandise enterprise to Harris Company in Atlanta, Georgia, and the spin-off of 3M’s data-storage and imaging-systems companies in 1996 creating a brand new firm referred to as Imation in Oakdale, Minnesota, close to 3M headquarters. The 2 selections have a number of parts in widespread—each concerned companies that 3M created and, in truth, ranked primary within the market for many years. They had been “homegrown” companies—largely created inside 3M and commercialized and constructed with the vitality of many inner sponsors and champions. The companies had been dangerous as a result of the merchandise had been based mostly on pioneering applied sciences. They not solely modified the premise of competitors; in addition they created all new, world industries. The companies had been extremely worthwhile for many years, they usually represented a major share of the corporate’s complete annual revenues. In addition they produced lots of 3M’s subsequent era of leaders.

So what occurred? Basically, regardless of the corporate’s success working in industrial {and professional} settings, doing issues for customers like producing videotapes, floppy disks, and cassettes meant transferring out of its consolation zone. These merchandise, initially developed for companies, grew so fashionable that they instantly wanted to be accessible at each big-box retailer and drugstore alike, and, Put up-its apart, retail was not a match for the type of firm 3M was.

However extra considerably, different firms had been merely higher at undercutting, and per the company biography, that required some powerful selections to be made:

Whereas it bought its merchandise for little or no revenue, its competitors bought their merchandise for even much less. Regardless that the buyer enterprise had big development potential, 3M had little expertise with a low-cost, low-profit-margin mannequin.

The markings had been clear—exit this enterprise, although 3M invented it. To remain within the “canine struggle” meant 3M needed to make investments monumental quantities of cash with the intention to stay the low-cost producer, with no assurance that revenue margins ever would enhance. “Exiting it was the fitting determination,” [former senior vice president Al] Huber stated.

Seeing what got here after, it’s onerous to disagree. Whereas floppies had been nonetheless a major medium within the mid-Nineteen Nineties, it was apparent that they’d not be sufficient capability for the subsequent era of knowledge hoarders. It will solely be a few years earlier than Apple would put the primary dagger within the coronary heart of the floppy disk with
the iMac, breaking with custom by releasing a private laptop in 1998 with no built-in floppy disk drive.

Imation carried on a floppy-disk advert marketing campaign by way of the late Nineteen Nineties.

That was a harbinger of what was to come back. Inside a decade of the choice, floppy drives, compact cassettes, and videotapes—the three key parts of 3M’s transfer into consumer-driven magnetic media—had fallen by the wayside. Imation, nonetheless lively at the moment, is owned by O-Jin Corp., a Korean expertise firm
that mainly purchased it for the its trademarked identify.

Very similar to its one-time competitor Memorex, Imation is a expertise ghost kitchen. Its former company dad or mum 3M, in the meantime, has a market cap of $51.33 billion on the time of this writing.

3M’s Magnetic Legacy

In loads of methods, I believe 3M’s persisting deep affiliation with computing, even supposing the corporate left the sphere many years in the past, comes right down to the truth that it had a really recognizable emblem design throughout its laptop heyday.

My first expertise with 3M was seeing its vivid purple emblem on floppy disks utilized in school rooms with Apple IIe computer systems within the late Eighties and early ’90s. 3M was immediately recognizable amongst these liable for creating the disks we wanted to load up Quantity Munchers and Commander Eager, and in consequence, its identify is perpetually imprinted into the brains of retro-tech nerds the world over. It’s a reminiscence that provides me heat emotions.

However 3M, for various causes, shouldn’t be an organization that carries loads of goodwill with youthful generations. For instance, the corporate is carefully related to the manufacturing of a wide range of chemical substances, together with PFOS (Perfluorooctane sulfonate), a key ingredient in Scotchguard and different water resistant supplies. It’s one among many PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl) substances which are believed to be dangerous to people.

The floppy disks that I and different elder millennials affiliate with an organization that was important to our youthful computing expertise are lengthy gone, shuttled away as a non-core enterprise for an enormous company that’s greatest described as an amalgamation of non-core companies loosely held collectively by a emblem and backing in chemistry and uncooked supplies.

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