3M’s Floppy Disks: A Story Of Success And The Birth Of Imation

3M, or as it was officially called until 2002, the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company is one of those odd-duck companies where if you ask what products they manufacture the answer is pretty close to a general ‘yes’. Throughout its 121 year history, it’s moved from producing sandpaper to also producing adhesives, laminates, personal protective equipment, as well as a nearly infinite list of further products which at one point in time included a magnetic storage range of products. How this latter came to be is the subject of an article by [Ernie Smith], focusing on floppy disk storage.

Although 3M was not the one to invent floppy disks or magnetic storage, their expertise in making small grains of material stick in an organized fashion on a wide range of materials came in handy. This first allowed 3M to make a name for itself with its Scotch magnetic (reel-to-reel) tape, followed by 3M moving into the floppy disk market by 1973. Over the years following this introduction, 3M storage media came to be known as highly reliable, but as the 1990s saw the magnetic storage market mature and stagnate, 3M management saw the writing on the wall and spun this division off into a new company: Imation.

While the floppy disk isn’t quite dead yet, at this point in time Imation and its main competitors like Memorex are now mostly just a fading memory — while 3M is still plowing ahead, creating new divisions and divesting as opportunities arise.

31 thoughts on “3M’s Floppy Disks: A Story Of Success And The Birth Of Imation

    1. I assumed 3.5 was referring to the platter, i.e. the ‘floppy’ part of the disk.
      Turns out that part is smaller!

      Was the naming convention added later for marketing?
      Going 8″ to 5 1⁄4″ then to 9cm may have sounded like a backwards step in marketing speak, so just continue using smaller numbers that roll off the tongue (three point 5, three and a half).

      3.5″ HDD’s apparently are so called because the unit was designed to fit the space a floppy drive fits, where there’s nothing close to 3.5″ about them.

      1. Before 3.5″ there were two competing standards, IBMs 3″ and (Hatachi’s?) 76mm which was branded “Compact Floppy” without mention of the size. Both flopped in the US.
        I always assumed Sony branded theirs as 3.5″ to avoid confusion in existing markets that were already using sizes, and went with inches as those markets were mostly the US and UK.

    2. Curiosity got the better of me wondering if 90mm was called 3.5″ for marketing reasons. Looks like Sony did invent the 90mm, but this spec was changed and adopted into the 3.5″ or 85.8mm that became so popular

      1. The thing is, rigid, microfloppy disks were and still are 9cm, not 85.8mm. The spec didn’t change, just the term. If you read the blog, then you can see the photo where an actual floppy disk is measured. You will need to take into account parallax simply from the thickness of the ruler you use to prove this, because observing from the centre of the disk causes the mm margins to be offset by about -0.5mm at both ends. Instead you need to align the left-hand side when looking directly down at the left-hand side of the disk then move your head to the right hand side and look directly down.

        The distance can be accurately enough seen as 9cm. The photo does this by using panorama mode. It results in a bit of tearing, in the image, but the important thing is that the difference between the RHS and LHS can be seen clearly.

          1. Good point! I didn’t check his 8.58cm figure even though a while back I’d calculated 3.5″ as 8.89cm. To reiterate: the rigid microfloppy disks we were using in the late 80s and through the 1990s were 1mm longer 8.89cm, they were and still are 9cm. They are designed to a metric spec.

    1. When taking a class in college, 3M was the subject of several case studies, including one where they created a division to make anti-glare screens for CRT monitors (apparently they are still being made!)

      1. As the article says 3M is basically in every industry. Mostly due to how good of a job they do of making information between departments available. So a failure one place often turns into a success somewhere else for them.

      1. Actually a good example – one department was trying to develop a low-residue adhesive, but they failed at this because it didn’t stick very well. But another department said, “wait – it does what?”

    2. Just to quote their site:
      “With over 60,000 products in our portfolio,”

      I have seen a lot of their products (adhesive, abrasive, office, safety). Sometimes we don’t notice how vast is portfolio of some companies that can keep doing quality products. I have seen Samsung cars in Samsung shipyard (next to Daewoo shipyard). Than Yamaha does nice motorbikes, pianos, guitars and synthesizers. Also Nokia has quite impressive portfolio.

  1. You mentioned their Scotch reel-to-reel recording tape but missed their cassettes. I still have the ‘Scotch’ branded cardboard cassette-case insert from one of those – it’s probably more than 50 years old now.

  2. Technology advances…I was able to store a WordPerfect file for a 250-page book (text only :( ) on a single 3.5 in 1998. Now I can store the second edition of that book, with all figures, tables, and photos.—and could store another 3000 books of the same size—on a fingernail-sized piece of technology that costs about what a box of 3.5s did.

    I love thinking about the advances we see in technology.

    1. “Technology advances…I was able to store a WordPerfect file for a 250-page book (text only :( ) on a single 3.5 in 1998. ”

      Ever tried same with a contemproary MS Word document (.doc) in the day?
      Technology advances.. Yeah, that’s how we could put it.

      Seriously though, I have my doubts. Or just a weird view on things, dunno.
      The way I see it, the bloatware increases faster than hardware improves.

      Let’s take current web technology for a moment.
      Back in the 90s, a website was less than a Megabyte in size.

      A humble HTML page was being measured in Bytes (!), not Kilobytes or Megabytes.
      Now how much does your average, blank, white website with irrelevant nonsense consume?
      – A dozen of megabytes for nothing (thanks minimalism!). Really, nothing.
      Just scripts doing their thing in background, without any use.

      By comparison, plain HTML sites could be read by users of a Braille reader or a text-to-speech programm.
      So how can this be progress, if we lock out users with dissabilities more than ever.
      Do we need AI to tell us (let it guess!) what’s visible on a website ? Is that progress? It’s not my vision, at least.

      Or let’s take the ubiquitous HTTPS. Great archievement.
      A single HTTPS session requies a lone C64 to work all day, just for the negotiating process.
      Huge improvement of technology. Because, we need encryption to visit random sites full of ads and trackers.

      1. Modern pages also have a lot more functionality, but hey. You can make a lightweight site without going back to plain HTML. In fact, you probably can’t get it as lightweight doing things the old way as you could now, not to mention that doing things dynamically lets you only get the content you request, not just whatever was put onto the page you’re on, and you don’t need to duplicate the unchanging parts of the page when you do that. The bloat is due to how most sites do not bother to see how lightweight they can make their pages.

        1. It’s a vicious circle – nobody cares how much storage they use or how inefficient they are to display, because everybody has supercomputers. But since nobody is paying attention to how many resources their code is consuming, we keep having to get superer-computers.

    2. “Now I can store the second edition of that book, with all figures, tables, and photos.—and could store another 3000 books of the same size—on a fingernail-sized piece of technology that costs about what a box of 3.5s did.”

      Yeah, small and black. The dream of the boomer generation. No offense, I’m not thinking of you here.
      The radio amateurs I know of personally, these old men, are like that.
      They value cheap, small and black things over everything (Bafoengs or their 817s).

      Thing is, I think, those “advances” are no real “advances”.
      It’s same underlying technology as used in the 70s/80s, just using a higher integration process (=smaller circuits) and using cheaper chassis (cheap plastic, bad solder joints, no caps/coils for filtering).

      So it’s not about ingenuity or progress, but precission and saving materials (but not for environment).
      it’s about efficieny, it you will. In a materilistic sense. Maximum exploitation.

      The use of smaller sizes is a good excuse to save material and increase profits.
      It’s less physical matter being used to create a circuit.

      Strictly speaking, that’s not “better” but “worse”. You have to pay same price for getting less.
      Like a bag of potato chips/crisps which had become smaller and light, with thinner chips.

      Or it’s about lighter cloths, which are being advertised as great summer wear.
      Who cares about the fact that they may wear out faster, because the material is worse?

      Speaking of, that’s why the 9cm floppy disk had died out, finally.:

      By late 90s/early 2000s, the built quality of both floppy drives and
      floppy disks were much poorer than what could be bought in 1990.

      Reliability had dropped to a point in which the floppy diskette got the reputation of being unreliable.
      Previously, that title had been held by the datasette.

      “I love thinking about the advances we see in technology.”

      I wished I could be that optimistic again. Seriouslly, I wished.
      I’m not trying to be sarcastic, really. I hope you stay that optimistic for as long as possible.

      I once was that optimistic, too, before the 2000s and social media happend.
      Before the western internet turned into a smartphone application (just look at those websites now).

      1. “Speaking of, that’s why the 9cm floppy disk had died out, finally.:

        By late 90s/early 2000s, the built quality of both floppy drives and
        floppy disks were much poorer than what could be bought in 1990.”

        Floppies were not only slow but also could not store enough data. Around 1998 my new computer had HDD in a drawer (so I could take it and bring data to my friend) and I had a special spare drawer in case someone brought his drive to me for that reason only. No video of meaningful length and quality could be stored on FDD. No reasonable (as per 1995 standard) quality, 3 minute MP3 file would fit on a FDD (maybe one if there was not much spectrum occupied) and CD quality track would not fit on 15 floppies. No good quality photo would fit without compression. Not even a proper size book with illustrations (like user manuals, STEM books, comics etc.) could fit on a floppy. Not so long time ago I got a CSV text file containing 8h of data logging and it was 500MB – can you imagine transferring this on FDDs?
        Even if they were rock solid long lasting data holders, they simply would decline due to data size to metric volume ratio.

  3. I work at the 3M plant in Cottage Grove Minnesota. About 25 years ago they shut down one of the last Magnetic Oxide processes. Trucks of rotted iron dumped into “perk” pits were dissolved in acids , then milled into specific size, precipitated out, dried, packaged and shipped to another plant where it was coated onto films, then slitted into tape. The process was insane. That red/black dust permeated every pore of skin. No amount of PPE and no amount of showering helped. It reminded me of a coal mine. People would be amazed at what it takes to manufacture products they use every day and take for granted.

  4. I used to work for Imation in their medical imaging films division. The worst part about that company (besides being extreme corporate cheap-skates) was the name. Every time I talked to a vendor or mentioned the name of the company, I would have to spell it and teach people how to pronounce it. It was pronounced “ih-may-shun” not “eye-may-shun” as most people assumed.

  5. A little catch up history…in the mid-to-late ’00s, Imation acquired the Memorex and “TDK Life on Record Brands” … so for a time you could buy diskettes (and recordable CDs and DVDs and bluetooth speakers and boomboxes) under the Memorex, TDK, and Imation brands and it was all Imation.

    At my current workplace, I found a box of Imation diskettes in a little used supply closet — they now sit proudly on my desk.

    Since there are a few former 3M and Imation-ers here:

    I worked at Imation’s PR agency when they spun off from 3M and wrote a guide on how to pronounce the name — ih-may-shun (with a schwa where the “u” is – pretty hard to find a schwa for the PC in 1996).

    I worked at Imation from 2011-2014 … at some point then-CEO Mark Lucas got tired of everyone assuming the company name was pronounced “eye-may-shun” and declared that going forward, “eye-may-shun” was the right way.

    Probably a coincidence that the company was basically dissolved after 2015.

    1. If you were in PR, why didn’t you use the power of your position to dissuade the “suits” from choosing such a ridiculous name for the company?

      Seriously. As a PR expert, they might have actually listened to someone like you informing them that the name will be frequently mispronounced, often misspelled when transcribed, and looks too much like “Imitation” — an adjective that no company ever wants associated with their brand image!

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