Here’s why floppy disks were called floppy disks:
The original disks were made with a soft plastic shell, such that they would easily bend, even under their own weight.
They were a little bit floppy, in a physical sense.
Later upgrades to the technology inherited the “floppy” nickname even though they were made with rigid plastic and weren’t literally floppy.
So if you want to learn all about why floppy disks were known as floppy disks, then this article is for you.
Let’s get right into it!
What Is a Floppy Disk? (3 Devices)
Hang on for a minute.
How are we supposed to get into the history of the name of floppy disks if we aren’t even clear on what they are?
Now, you might be clear on the concept of floppy disks.
Maybe you’ve even used them before.
But, if you ask a hundred people what a floppy disk is, you’re going to get a wide variety of answers.
So, let’s clear that up first, and then we can get into the name.
The truth is that the term “floppy disk” is applied to a few different devices.
They’re all similar in physical appearance, but they aren’t all the same thing.
To fully explain, I’ll separate each “floppy disk” into its own section and then cover what it is and how it works.
#1 The Original Floppy Disk
The original floppy disk is also known as the 5.25-inch data storage disk.
This is a magnetic storage device, and it was built in a rectangular shape.
The very first version was invented by Alan Shugart.
He was working for IBM, and in 1967, he debuted this device.
It was capable of holding 360 kilobytes.
What made this device so novel is that you could easily hold it in your hand and use it to transfer information from one computer to another.
Keeping in mind that this was long before the development of the internet, the means of transferring information of the age were rather cumbersome.
There were magnetic tape reels that could hold data, but they were large and required bulky equipment to run.
There were also punch cards, but those were a whole different kind of mess.
The first floppy disk allowed computers to share tons of information and even entire programs, and you could nearly fit the storage device in your pocket.
Or, you could put a whole bunch of floppy disks in a single container and carry them from computer to computer.
Long story short, they revolutionized data sharing for computers.
And, as a bit of a spoiler to the question of the day, these disks were made with rather flimsy plastic.
That was intentional.
The soft plastic design made it difficult to unintentionally damage the device that actually read the floppy disks.
They were soft so that you couldn’t jam them into the drive and break it.
What Is a Byte?
I’m going to back up for a moment.
To really understand why there are so many different kinds of floppy disks, it’s important to explain some of the basics of computer data storage.
Computers are digital devices, and in order to function, they have to store digital information.
These days, there are countless ways to go about storing information, but one way or another, there’s always a physical device that has a way of remembering digital information.
Whether you’re using floppy disks, DVDs, flash drives, or cloud storage, there’s always something physically storing the information, and that information is measured in bytes.
To keep this simple, a byte is a unit of measurement for digital information.
A single byte holds very little information, but computers can work with billions upon billions of bytes, and that’s what really matters in this discussion.
Bytes use the standard metric prefix nomenclature, meaning you have kilobytes (1,000 bytes), megabytes (1 million bytes), gigabytes (1 billion bytes), and even larger measures.
To put these numbers in context, your average song is going to be a couple of megabytes (MB) of data.
A full high-definition movie is going to be several gigabytes (GB) of data.
The first floppy disks held 360 kilobytes (kB) of data.
By modern storage metrics, that’s nothing, but at the time, it was revolutionary.
#2 The 3.5-Inch Upgrade
Now that we have a little more context, we can talk about the first major upgrade to floppy disks.
In the 1980s, the 3.5-inch disk was released, and it took off immediately.
It was smaller than the original floppy disk, but despite that, it held more data.
In fact, these disks could hold 1.44 MB of data each.
That made them much more useful—especially considering how computers were using more and more data all the time.
Being smaller and more efficient, these disks really helped push the rise of personal computers.
They were convenient and reliable enough that home computers could access many different useful programs and could save plenty of data for normal usage of the time.
Something that is worth noting is that these smaller disks were rigid in design.
They no longer needed soft plastic as improvements to the read/write technology made the whole system more resilient.
The 3.5-inch floppies used harder plastic because it provided better protection for the data inside.
Despite that, they were still called floppy disks.
Not to worry, I’ll explain why in a bit.
#3 Zip Drives
The third kind of floppy disks is known as Zip drives and/or Zip disks.
To clarify, the disks held the information, and the drives were what allowed you to read or write information to and from the disks.
Zip drives also used 3.5-inch floppies, but they came with some big improvements to data storage.
The original zip drive could hold 100 MB of data.
We’re talking about a major upgrade to the technology, and they really took off in popularity in the 90s.
Over the decade, improvements to zip technology pushed data storage to 250 MB per disk and eventually all the way to 750 MB per disk.
Despite those dramatic increases, they really lost popularity by the end of the 90s.
There are a few reasons for that.
First, CDs and DVDs were much cheaper at this point, and they could hold gigabytes of information.
Second, the internet was starting to take off, so transportable physical storage media was slowly becoming less important.
With all of that said, Zip drives were still said to use floppy disks, even though the 3.5-inch disks that they used weren’t floppy at all.
Why Were Floppy Disks Called “Floppy?”
This isn’t a moment of peak creativity for English speakers.
Nor is it one of those fascinating, quirky stories that are fun to retell at parties.
As I mentioned before, the original 5.25-inch disks were made from a not-so-rigid plastic material.
If you held one of these disks at the corner, it would bend a little under its own weight.
If you were to wave the disk back and forth (a bad idea as it could damage the information inside), the disk would flex under those forces.
They were a little bit floppy, physically.
They weren’t as floppy as, say, uncooked bacon, but for a computer device to be so flexible was odd, and people took note.
On top of that, floppy disks were instrumental in taking computers to mainstream audiences, and “floppy disk” is an easy colloquial term to remember.
It was comfortable and easy to understand, and that’s why the nickname took off and stuck.
Why Were the Later Disks Also Called “Floppy?” (2 Types)
The namesake of the large, literally floppy disks makes plenty of sense. Fine.
The thing is, when people talk about floppy disks today, they usually aren’t referring to the old 5.25-inch disks.
Instead, they usually refer to smaller disks that came later in technological development.
More often than not, they’re talking about the 3.5-inch disk (of various types).
Those disks are rigid.
If you’ve ever held one, they don’t flop around at all.
So, why are they called floppy?
What’s the deal with that?
Is this where the fun, quirky story comes into play?
It’s not all that interesting.
But, there are two different types of disks we need to discuss, so I’ll explain each one in its own section.
#1 3.5-Inch Disks
Let’s start with the second generation of floppy disks.
These 3.5-inch disks were completely rigid and not floppy at all.
So, why did they have that nickname?
Basically, they inherited the name from their predecessors.
There are a few reasons it worked out this way.
First, 3.5-inch floppies look a whole lot like the original 5.25-inch versions.
The 3.5-inch disks are basically just smaller, rigid versions of the same thing.
Since they looked just like the disks everyone already knew as floppy disks, the name transferred pretty easily.
The second reason is that these smaller disks were the next generation of the same technology.
They work on the same principles as the original floppy disks.
They’re just more efficient.
Since they don’t really represent a change to how the technology works, it’s not that surprising that the old name stuck, even if it no longer made intuitive sense.
To recap, 3.5-inch disks are not literally floppy, but they inherited that nickname from their predecessor.
#2 Zip Drives
With Zip drives, it’s really the same story with a new generation.
It’s worth noting that Zip drives weren’t always referred to as floppy disks.
The name “Zip” definitely proliferated and was used—especially to differentiate them from the other kind of 3.5-inch disks.
The big thing here is that Zip disks needed a special device so that you could use them, and that’s why people wouldn’t always call Zip disks floppy disks.
That said, they ultimately shared the same nickname.
In fact, if you look at the Wikipedia article for Zip disks, they’re referred to as floppy disks throughout.
To avoid redundancy, this is the same story repeated.
Zip disks inherited the “floppy” nickname from their predecessors.
That’s really it.