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Who Invented the Thumb Drive?

By Dillon Wallace

Whether you use one for your job every day or just when you need to conveniently transfer data from this to that, the thumb drive single handedly (there’s a pun somewhere in there) revolutionized the data-saving industry. It’s quite remarkable the massive amount of gigabytes (even terabytes now) that can be crammed into one, tiny little portable stick. Some might even call it a wand that wields information. And if information is knowledge and knowledge is power, then a thumb drive may be more powerful than the Elder wand.


But how did the thumb drive, aka the pen drive, USB drive, gig stick, flash stick, jump drive disk key and every other name, actually come to be – and when? Here’s a little lesson in life after the floppy disk and before the cloud.


Think back to the earliest thumb drive you remember buying – most likely, sometime in the early 2000s. Does the name SanDisk come to mind? Well, it should because it’s the company (well, technically M-Systems was the company, but it was acquired by SanDisk) that filed the first patent for the USB flash drive in April 1999. One year later, by early 2000, IBM became the first company to sell USB flash drives in the United States.


Guess how much storage the first USB flash drive came loaded with?


Eight megabytes. EIGHT MB!


While those 8 measly megabytes sound like chump change by today’s storage standards, that was a lot of portable storage back in 2000. After all, the floppy disks that we had all come to live and save by carried an average storage capacity under 2MB. In fact, due to the nature of such a technological innovation that the thumb drive came to be, many lawsuits were filed resulting in several competing companies (particularly Asian-based organizations from Singapore, China and Taiwan) pointing fingers of ownership at one another.


But with the digital landscape growing so rapidly in the early 2000s, the thumb drive too began to evolve, quickly. Early on in its lifespan, the USB flash drive was used primarily for saving and sharing documents of low storage capacity – they were essentially smaller 3 ½-inch floppy drives but with four times the storage space. Those looking to save vast amounts of files and data (or music and video, in the early digital days) still had to use bigger, bulkier hard drives to do so. Even portable hard drives were a generous definition of the term “portable.” Fast forward a few years though and that measly 8MB thumb drive storage turned into 512 MB, then 1 gigabyte (GB), then two, and so on, until in 2017 the biggest amount of storage on a flash drive topped the storage scales at 1 terabyte (TB).


What started as a smaller alternative to the 3 ½-inch floppy drive pioneered a new wave of portable and digital storage. In fact, thumb drives and some of the earliest memory cards and SD cards (initially known as TransFlash™) were created around the same time by none other than, you guessed it, SanDisk.


In a now cloud-based world where data and storage are so easy to come by, sometimes the importance of the thumb drive and its contribution gets diluted. Sure, it’s easier to just automatically back up your smart device’s files, pictures, documents, video and music to the cloud, but the impact of the thumb drive will never be lost on the technological world … and neither will anything that you have saved on it.

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