The name seems tailor-made for a Seinfeld bit: “What is the deal with floppy disks? They’re not floppy, and they’re not disks!”
Certainly the 3.5-inch colorful plastic squares that today represent the majority of floppies in circulation don’t appear to fit the description implied by their moniker, but the name refers to what came before, and what still lies beneath.
The first floppies were flexible 8-inch plastic disks coated with iron oxide and housed in a protective jacket lined with a fabric that would clean the surface of the disk as it rotated. Now obsolete, they were produced by IBM in 1971 in response to a problem with its System 370 computer. (The 370’s operating instructions were stored in semiconductor memory; turning off the machine erased the instructions.) The disk could store about 80,000 bytes, and it launched the era of the personal computer.
As computers got smaller, so did the disks. The 5.25-inch version came along in 1976—its size allegedly inspired by a cocktail napkin its developers came across while talking shop in a Boston bar. It has since been usurped by the 3.5-inch diskette, which Sony launched in 1981. Though even these are losing ground to newer tools for transferring files between machines, most computers still include slots to hold these little items, a comfort to the wise (or paranoid) among us who still rely on them to back up our hard drives.