How the floppy disk was invented, by accident.

At HP's Input Output site, Steven Vaughan-Nichols writes about the History of the Floppy Disk.  

He points to Alan Shugart, who, in 1967, was direct access storage manager at IBM, and was resposible for assigning David Nobel to lead the development of a reliable and inexpensive system for loading microcode into the IBM System/370 mainframes, using Initial Control Program Load.  The result of the development program was the 8" floppy disk (and floppy disk drive.)



What I find interesting is that history is often written by those who are commercially successful.  The floppy disk was actually invented some 7 years earlier. But because it was for a top secret cold war project, the inventor never really made much money from it.

If you're an "engineer's engineer," you might have heard of Richard Morley. He's known for a number of accomplishments, including inventing the programmable logic controller (PLC), inventing anti-lock brakes, and, just incidentally, inventing the floppy disk.

In this audio interview by the National Center for Manufacturing Science, Morley talks about the "aha" moment that lead him to invent the floppy disk. He explains that he was playing a game of Hearts one day, and as he tossed a card across the table, he saw how it floated over the surface, on a cushion of air. The Bernoulli Effect. Just what was needed to fly a read/write head over a thin film magnetic surface.

I recommend listening to the interview---but not just for the story of the floppy disk. Morley also explains his impetus in inventing the PLC.  (In short, he was hung-over, and tired of reinventing the wheel every time he had to design a control system.)

Morley's aha moment with a playing card is, in a way, reminiscent of another aha moment---this one, by the physicist Richard Feynman. From James Gleick's book, Genius – The Life and Science of Richard Feynman:

A few days later he [Feynman] was eating in the student cafeteria when someone tossed a dinner plate into the air—a Cornell cafeteria plate with the university seal imprinted on one rim—and in the instant of its flight he experienced what he long afterward considered an epiphany. As the plate spun, it wobbled. Because of the insignia he could see that the spin and the wobble were not quite in synchrony. Yet just in that instant it seemed to him—or was it his physicist's intuition?—that the two rotations were related. He had told himself he was going to play, so he tried to work the problem out on paper. It was surprisingly complicated, but he used a Lagrangian, least-action approach and found a two-to-one ratio in the relationship of wobble and spin. That was satisfyingly neat. Still, he wanted to understand the Newtonian forces directly, just as he had when he was a sophomore taking his first theory course and he provocatively refused to use the Lagrangian approach. He showed Bethe what he had discovered.

But what's the importance of that? Bethe asked.

It doesn't have any importance, he said. I don't care whether a thing has importance. Isn't it fun?

Sometimes, invention is all about fun.

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Comment by Leslie Langnau on September 13, 2012 at 11:24am

Nice story.  I remember Dick Morley from my earlier days of covering PLCs.  This is a great reminder of his accomplishments. 


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