Today in Tedium: If you ask the average person what the company 3M does, odds are if they have a few gray hairs hanging out on their scalp, they will likely say that the company makes floppy disks. Now, this was once true, but if you look on 3M’s own website, you will see no mention of this legacy—it’s a firm that sells abrasive materials, adhesives, filters, films, personal protective equipment, and medical equipment. (Younger people, if they recognize 3M, it’s probably because of Post-it notes, or more recently their N95 masks, which is a weird legacy!) About 28 years ago this week, 3M got out of the data storage business in an announced spinoff of the asset to a new firm called Imation, a company that is still around today, with a much smaller profile. But even with that said, if you look around, people will frequently say that of the many makers of floppies out there, 3M made the best ones. Given that, I’m ultimately curious to figure out exactly why 3M became the most memorable brand in data storage during the formative days of computing, and with that, today’s Tedium honors the role 3M played in the computer revolution. — Ernie @ Tedium
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The year that the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company was founded by a group of five investors—Hermon Cable, Danley Budd, William McGonagle, John Dwan, and Henry Bryan—who were looking to mine the aluminum oxide gemstone corundum, which is commonly used to make sandpaper. One problem: The spot where the group decided to mine, in Two Harbors, Minnesota, didn’t have a decent supply of corundum, leading them to use a lower-quality material for making sandpaper. Within only a couple of years, they transitioned to making mostly sandpaper, which even then had its challenges—the floor in the factory they built in 1905 partially collapsed from the weight of the acquired corundum. Despite the rocky start, the company gradually found its footing by developing new, innovative kinds of sandpaper.
How 3M became a key innovator in the production of magnetic data storage
Now, to be clear, 3M did not invent the magnetic tape—that was a German invention, developed in 1928 by Fritz Pfleumer, that was largely prevented from spreading to the outside world because of World War II.
Nor was it the company to popularize magnetic media—that was Ampex, which commercialized the tape recorder and whose later spinoff, Memorex, represented Silicon Valley’s first true startup. That was the point where magnetic tape turned into a major innovation in the world of audio—one that, famously, Bing Crosby got to first because he invested in Ampex.
But 3M was not too far behind in helping to develop magnetic media. The reason for this is that the groundbreaking work that the company had done to develop pressure-sensitive tape was an essential element of making magnetic tape, effective.
Strangely enough, Richard Gurley Drew, the inventor of much of 3M’s tape technology, was a musician—he played banjo in a local orchestra—when he took a job with the company. He probably didn’t realize he was inventing a key element of 20th-century recording technology when he observed that auto body shops needed a way to “mask off” areas of vehicles that were being whittled down with sandpaper, but his observation would prove useful to the invention of masking tape.
As Smithsonian Magazine notes, the formulation he developed, combining cabinetmaker’s glue with glycerin, proved to be just the right level of easy-to-remove adhesive that it became an out-and-out phenomenon. You might know his invention, developed in 1925, as Scotch Tape.
In 1930, he followed it up with another invention that was even more amazing—tape made from cellophane, which by its nature was totally transparent. Another 3M employee developed the tape dispenser, and the two inventions reshaped offices the world over.
Again, the invention of magnetic media didn’t happen in 3M’s laboratories, but it was well-optimized to leverage it—as it was a company that was built around mineral science and had a track record of tape innovation that preceded it.
These two inventions reshaped offices the world over, and 3M was well-positioned to further innovate on this technology immediately after World War II ended.
One lesser-known fact about the development of magnetic tape is that, before World War II, a company did attempt to manufacture a tape recorder in the U.S. based off the German invention. That firm, the Brush Development Company, had developed a device called the Soundmirror, produced by a Hungarian inventor named Semi J. Begun, just before the war. The invention was used by the military during the war, but the company revisited the idea immediately after the war, which meant that there was a need for someone to manufacture magnetic tape.
As author David Morton noted in his 2006 book Sound Recording: The Life Story of a Technology, 3M was one of the best-suited companies on the market to help Brush out:
Brush turned to others to produce the recording medium, which consisted of a kraft-paper tape coated with the same powdered iron oxide used by the Germans. Of several candidates, 3M was the leading manufacturer of a similar product, an adhesive tape marketed as Scotch Tape. While the oxide used for Brush tape had slightly different magnetic properties than the latest magnetophone tapes, it would work well at the Soundmirror’s lower tape speed, and in 1946 and 1947 the company began supplying small quantities of its “Type 100” paper-based tape to users of the Soundmirror, introduced that year, and the captured German magnetophones now in the United States.
Brush eventually moved to other manufacturers to help it out, like Dupont. But the experience led 3M to continue developing the metal oxides in its own tape technology, leading to the creation of the Scotch 111 reel-to-reel tape, which was one of the most popular types used in recording studios throughout the 1950s, per the Museum of Magnetic Recording. Like the adhesive tape it was named after, it carried the Scotch brand name, which meant that this technology that was developed for a completely different reason had been applied to state-of-the-art electronics.
I admittedly have long had a fascination with these reel-to-reel tapes. A number of years ago, back when I lived in Milwaukee, I found a couple of blank reel-to-reel tapes created by 3M using the Scotch name. I bought them from a junk store, and maybe paid $2 for them. They managed to follow me through three states and five cities, and now sit on my intentionally-organized pile of junk. Based on my analysis of the container and the logotype it uses, they date to at least the mid-1960s. (No, I have not tried to record on them.)
For years, 3M’s reel-to-reels had one of the strongest reputations in the music industry; they were built to be of super-high quality. But you might be wondering, how did 3M make the leap from reel-to-reel tape to floppies? It feels like just as strange a leap as a sandpaper company developing tape, or a masking tape company developing reel-to-reel tape.
But, again, it happened.
A slang term meaning “cheap” that dates to the 1920s and 1930s. Word is that 3M came to name its tape products after the term after an autoworker complained that the tape wasn’t strong enough. Rather than give up on the tape, they ended up using the nickname as its eventual brand name. (I’ll let you note the irony that it later became known as the brand name used for high-quality reel-to-reel tape. A brand name is a brand name.)
How 3M’s tapes went from music to data
As I wrote back in July, 3M didn’t develop the floppy disk drive. IBM did, and Shugart Associates further improved it by making it small enough for regular users.
But 3M, much as with mechanical tape, was well-positioned to improve on it, by leveraging its skills with mechanical media in the budding computing industry.
In a way, 3M came to media manufacturing from the opposite direction that its disk-selling competitor Memorex did. Memorex started with computers and gradually came to develop and improve tape-based technology, which eventually evolved into floppy disks. On the other hand, 3M started with the raw materials and the manufacturing processes, and combined those into computing’s greatest commodity item, the floppy disk.
It was not the only manufacturer of disks out there—some names you probably remember from this era include Verbatim, Control Data, Dysan, and BASF. Most of these companies started with the technology—for example, Dysan worked closely with Shugart Associates on the 5.25-inch floppy. But 3M wasn’t alone in starting with the raw materials. BASF, a German chemical manufacturer, has a somewhat similar corporate history and logo design to fellow thick-Helvetica enthusiast 3M. (Though 3M obviously never associated with the Nazis during World War II, so there’s that.)
Ultimately, no matter how these companies got there, they were responsible for creating the disks we needed to load up Number Munchers and Commander Keen, and as a result, their names are forever imprinted into the brains of retro-tech nerds the world over.
As a pure-play technology manufacturer, 3M is perhaps best-known for pushing the Floptical disk technology, which Jim Adkisson, who helped create the 5-and-a-quarter floppy at Shugart Associates, developed in the 1980s. In a partnership with Maxell and Iomega, 3M pushed the disk technology, which could hold more than 20 megabytes of data on a disk that looked a lot like a 3.5-inch floppy disk.
It also worked in more specialized media, developing high-capacity optical disks that fit into standard floppy and optical disk mechanisms, as well as high-end tape drives intended for the server room rather than your cassette player.
In many ways, 3M was out front on one of the most important elements of computing and was making huge profits from it. But at the end of 1995, they were done. What changed?
The year that 3M won an Emmy Award for its role in developing the videotape, which was commercialized in large part thanks to the company’s Melvin Sater, who developed the technology in 1956 to show off at a broadcasting conference. The decision gave Scotch yet another business line. Per a 3M newsletter published by the blog Eyes of a Generation, Sater’s team worked in a 22-hour sprint at the behest of Ampex to get it ready for the conference, something that paid off because 3M ended up dominating the video industry for decades afterward.
Five unusual types of products 3M developed over the years
- Bondo. While not developed under 3M’s roof, Bondo’s brand of automotive body filler, essentially a putty designed to cover up visual imperfections, has been owned by 3M since at least 2007. Much like Post-Its and Scotch tape, it has become a generic term for the product line it serves.
- The typodont. This weirdly named device, associated with dentistry, is essentially a plastic model of oral cavities, intended to make it easier to explain what is happening in a person’s mouth. While 3M didn’t invent the typodont, which has existed since the late 19th century, it is one of the 60,000 products the company makes.
- Tartan track. You know how Astroturf is commonly used in sports stadiums as a replacement for grass? Tartan track is sort of the track-and-field version of astroturf (which, somewhat ironically, Monsanto first developed), originally designed for horse tracks. One strange element of the Tartan track story is the fact that the original formulation used mercury, making it much more dangerous than it needed to be. (This kind of problem would later be a theme for 3M, a major chemical manufacturer.)
- Petrifilm. You know petri dishes, the devices used to allow bacteria to grow in a lab? Yep, 3M came up with a better version of them, in the form of Petrifilm, an easy-to-deploy platelet-style product developed by the company’s food-safety department in 1984. The technology has become hugely important in testing for potential food-safety concerns.
- Wind vortex generators. A couple of years back, 3M developed a technology to help wind turbines generate airflow more optimally to ensure they work better. It’s essentially a piece of carefully placed, high-quality plastic that, when place correctly, increases energy production on turbines by 2 to 3 percent—a level that adds up.
What led 3M to kick a multi-billion-dollar business to the curb
At the time 3M spun it its magnetic media arm, it had evolved into a $2.3 billion business, per Time, which made it a significant chunk of 3M’s overall offering in 1995.
But at the time, technology—especially consumer technology—was starting to look like a bad bet for legacy companies. This was around the same period that AT&T, still smarting from misadventures like the EO Personal Communicator, spun off Bell Labs as Lucent Technologies.
3M’s story, in its own words, suggests a similar crisis of culture. In A Century of Innovation, a book published by the company around the time of its 100-year anniversary, the company compared the decision, which it called “the most wrenching decision in its history,” to that of its decision to sell its Duplicating Products Division, which sold copying machines:
Of all the businesses 3M has shed over its 100 years, the two seminal decisions that people point to as most significant involved the sale of 3M’s Duplicating Products business to Harris Corporation in Atlanta, Georgia, and the spin-off of 3M’s data-storage and imaging-systems businesses in 1996 creating a new company called Imation in Oakdale, Minnesota, near 3M headquarters. The two decisions have several elements in common—both involved businesses that 3M created and, in fact, ranked number one in the marketplace for decades. They were “homegrown” businesses—largely created within 3M and commercialized and built with the energy of many internal sponsors and champions. The businesses were risky because the products were based on pioneering technologies. They not only changed the basis of competition; they also created all new, global industries. The businesses were highly profitable for decades, and they represented a significant share of the company’s total annual revenues. They also produced many of 3M’s next generation of leaders.
So what happened? Essentially, despite the company’s success working in industrial and professional settings, doing things like producing videotapes, floppy disks, and cassettes meant moving out of its comfort zone. These products, initially developed for businesses, grew so popular that they suddenly needed to be available at every big-box store and drug store alike, and, Post-its aside, retail was not a match for the kind of company 3M was.
But more significant is that other companies were simply better at undercutting, and per the corporate biography, that required some tough decisions to be made:
While it sold its products for little or no profit, its competition sold their products for even less. Even though the consumer business had huge growth potential, 3M had little experience with a low-cost, low-profit-margin model.
The markings were clear—exit this business, even though 3M invented it. To stay in the “dog fight” meant 3M had to invest enormous amounts of money in order to remain the low-cost producer, with no assurance that profit margins ever would improve. “Exiting it was the right decision,” [former senior vice president Al] Huber said.
Seeing what came after, it’s hard to disagree. While floppies were still a significant medium in the mid-1990s, it was obvious that they would not be big-enough for the next generation of data hoarders. After all, it would only be a couple of years before Apple would put the first dagger in the heart of the floppy disk with the iMac.
An Imation ad, circa 1998. Try as they might, the 3M brand was simply stronger and more memorable.
That was a harbinger of what was to come. Within a decade of the decision, floppy drives, compact cassettes, and videotapes—the three key elements of 3M’s move into consumer-driven magnetic media—had fallen by the wayside. Imation, still active today, is owned by the O-Jin Corporation, a Korean technology company that basically bought the trademark.
Much like its onetime competitor Memorex, Imation is a technology ghost kitchen. Its former corporate parent, meanwhile, has a market cap of $52.66 billion at the time of this writing.
In a lot of ways, I think 3M’s deep association with the rise of computing, despite the fact that the company gave it up decades ago, comes down to the fact that it had a very recognizable logo design during the era of computers with which it worked.
My first experience with 3M was from seeing its bright red logo on floppy disks used in classrooms with Apple IIe computers in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It is a memory that gives me warm feelings.
But 3M, for a number of reasons, is not a company that carries a lot of goodwill in the modern day. The company is closely associated with the manufacturing of a variety of chemicals, including PFOS (Perfluorooctane sulfonate), a key ingredient in Scotchguard and other water-resistant materials. It’s one of many PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl) substances, which are beleived to create negative effects for humans.
Even the tartan name has been sullied as a result of this. Minnesota’s Tartan High School, a name believed to be named for nearby employer 3M’s Tartan track, was the subject of a Sydney Morning Herald story that pointed out that numerous local teenagers that went to the school were getting treated for cancer in the midst of going to a school in 3M’s backyard.
More recently, the company had to settle an legal dispute with veterans and service members for distributing defective earplugs that failed to properly protect their ears from the machinations of battle. The settlement, for a reported $6 billion, hints at the ultimate depth of 3M’s failure.
The floppy disks that I and other elder millennials associate with a company that was essential to our youthful computing experience were long gone, shuttled away as a non-core business for a giant corporation that is best described as an amalgamation of non-core businesses loosely held together by a logo and backing in chemistry and raw materials. It’s as if they combined dozens of unrelated products together with tape and called it a company.
Imation is now owned by an asset-management business, selling SSDs and blank CDs and USB drives that are just as forgettable as all the other SSDs and blank CDs and USB drives. These days, 3M doesn’t make disks—it makes technologies that allow other people to make disks, like the the filtration systems it produces for microeletronics.
I’m sure 3M’s leadership wishes it could have something like an extremely memorable floppy disk brand to point towards the next time their extremely complicated business model leads to a costly, environmentally damaging crisis.