Nuclear floppy


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Every semester that I teach at Emerson College, I start with a lesson on the history of computers and the Internet. This lesson employs several props, including a variety of floppy disk sizes.

"How many of you remember these?" I say, holding up a 3.5" disk. When I started asking that question seven years ago, every hand went up; now, only half do. And when I ask the same question of 5.25" disks, half the hands used to go up; now, none do.

The one constant over the years is that nobody remembers 8" disks. And that's fair: they debuted in 1972, twenty-five years before my students were born. As this was also well before the arrival of personal computers, I infer this floppy size was used primarily in business and industrial settings.

One industry that lingered with the 8" floppy was the United States government — but even they have decided to move on. Reported last month by Engadget is that our country's military will no longer reply on floppy disks to coordinate the launch of nuclear missiles, replacing them with a "highly-secure solid state digital storage solution".

This is not just a transfer of media; the underlying software must be changing as well. The storage capacity of 8" floppies maxed out at 1.2 megabytes, whereas SSD storage usually holds a minimum of several gigabytes. What would that antiquated nuclear system do with all that extra space? Likely we are upgrading to a more complex and bloated system. It reminds me of the sequel to WarGames, where (spoiler) the original JOSHUA software is uploaded to a modern mainframe to do battle with its more modern counterpart. Would an 8" floppy stand the test of time?

It possibly could, as the floppy medium had its advantages. When I interviewed author R.A. Salvatore back in 2002 about his official novelization of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, he said that the book was being written on a computer with no access to the Internet, making it impenetrable except by physical means. Likewise, the US government once defended their choice of 8" floppies: "You can't hack something that doesn't have an IP address. It's a very unique system — it is old and it is very good." Hard to repair and maintain, perhaps, but otherwise reliable.

So farewell to a last bastion of 8" floppies. Like my A2Central.com t-shirt says: It's not obsolete; it's proven technology.

(Hat tip to Eric Reimann)

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