Why do disks drive?
January 20, 2008 4:11 AM   Subscribe

Can you explain the drive in disk drive?

(Why aren't they called 'readers' / what does 'drive' mean in this context exactly?)
posted by unmake to Technology (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The disk spins. It is driven.
posted by poppo at 4:18 AM on January 20, 2008

Disk: the region in a plane bounded by a circle

Drive: In electrical engineering, a drive is an electronic device to provide power to a motor or servo
posted by 0xFCAF at 4:20 AM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I wonder if the parlance is then inaccurate for "flash drives" unless they actually have moving parts.

(And, actually after a quick Google, the wiki entry on USB flash drives describes that it is in fact a misnomer since nothing is driven, but rather referred to as a drive because it appears as a drive to the computer... kind of a backwards approach.)

Indeed, your disks spin. They are driven to do so. Optical, floppy, tape or hard, they're all moving and motorized with drives. :-)
posted by disillusioned at 4:53 AM on January 20, 2008

When there were floppy disks, you put the floppy disk into the disk drive. The term is just handed down even they are no longer separate.
posted by DarkForest at 5:11 AM on January 20, 2008

The early hard disk drives were large physical cabinets with a spindle of rotating metal platters.

Strictly speaking, the 'drive' refers to the cabinet and electric motor that drives the spinning of the platters - the drive is independent of the media that goes in it, thus floppy disk drive and CD-ROM drive, though of course modern hard-disk drives are sealed.

The principle behind hard-disk drives hasn't changed since they were invented in the '50s, they're still a spindle of 1 or more rotating platters with a magnetic coating, written and read by a mobile electromagnet (head) that passes over the surface. They're just a LOT smaller and faster with higher density sectors on the platters.
posted by ArkhanJG at 5:20 AM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

OED says it's a synonym for "disc drive," which it defines as "a mechanism for rotating a disc; now spec. a storage device with one or more read/write heads and means for rotating a disc or disc pack; cf. tape drive." Merriam-Webster says a drive is "a device for reading and writing on magnetic media (as tapes or disks)." It's easy to see how the definition shifted once again to simply mean "a device for reading and writing nonvolatile mass storage" (my definition), as the term has been used for optical storage and now for flash memory, even though the latter has nothing to do with moving any sort of physical media, as disillusioned points out.

The meanings of words shift and people forget why they were so called in the first place. I can't recall ever thinking of a disk drive as something that caused disks to move rather than something that read data off of disks, although that's the obvious etymology.
posted by grouse at 5:41 AM on January 20, 2008

I love alliteration.
Disk Drive as opposed to metal spinning disc magneto demystifier.
posted by Gungho at 5:51 AM on January 20, 2008

I guess the follow-up question is: what lexicographical category does "drive" fall into when used to describe flash devices (ie, "usb drive") - is there a specific descriptor for these hand-me-down terms (having a 'drive' was once a common feature of storage devices -> it became synonymous with such devices -> now 'driveless' devices are still called 'drives')?
posted by unmake at 5:59 AM on January 20, 2008

Drives are part of a bus route.
posted by Smart Dalek at 6:29 AM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Consider the metonymy of polysemes in the subtle dance of semantic shift.
posted by GPF at 7:30 AM on January 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I guess the follow-up question is: what lexicographical category does "drive" fall into when used to describe flash devices (ie, "usb drive")

posted by ikkyu2 at 8:59 AM on January 20, 2008

Another hand-me-down phrase is "dial the phone." Phones haven't had rotary dials for at least 20 years. There are probably lots of people today who have never actually "dialed" a phone number in their life.
posted by JackFlash at 11:09 AM on January 20, 2008

Many early hard disks (by which I mean the platters that were the actual storage media) were not fixed: they were enclosed in plastic housings and were interchangeable in the hard-disk drive (which would be the complete formulation of the phrase; in Japan, they still refer to hard drives as HDDs). These things were enormous, btw: my high school had a DEC PDP/11 with two hard-disk drives, and the disk cartridges were something like 15"" in diameter, and about 4" thick. So in that context it made perfect sense to talk about a hard disk and a hard-disk drive as two separate things.

Even today, Iomega is selling a device called the Rev which uses removable hard disks in cartridges. So it would make sense to talk of the fixed gadget (reader, if you like) as the "drive" since it spins the disk.
posted by adamrice at 12:38 PM on January 20, 2008

yep, taken giant drum things out of 'drives', and only 10M or less. Horror stories of bearings freezing up and platters flying out like frisbees and flying through walls because your disk is a hunk of metal 15"-ish in diameter spinning at high speed. Disk, disk-drive... Tape, Tape-drive... Your itsy bitsy 10Mb (at most) disk used to look like a portable cake transport device, big, round, lift up that flap and there are four or five giant metal disks inside and your "disk drive" is the size of your washing machine.
posted by zengargoyle at 2:03 AM on January 22, 2008

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