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USB Flash Drive
“Inside the typical USB flash drive you’ll find two integrated circuits: a flash memory chip and a Universal Serial Bus (USB) controller. These two different technologies, invented at different times, were paired together by Israeli company M-Systems, which applied for a patent in April 1999. About the size of an adult thumb, the device for US patent 6,148,354 A was described as a “Universal Serial Bus-based PC flash disk.” The patent was issued on November 14, 2000. By that time, USB flash drives were being sold by multiple companies.
To understand the significance of this pairing, it’s useful to understand the function of the two separate technologies from which it derives. The USB is an industry standard for a common connection interface between devices that connect to computers. It was created in the mid-1990s by a consortium of leading technology companies. Flash memory, invented in 1980, is microelectronics that require little power to operate and can retain data with no power at all.
The marriage of USB and flash memory made data portability and offline sharing much easier while increasing the amount of data that could be stored and moved between devices and personal computers. Previously, using removable flash storage required having a special reader—something that most computers didn’t have. But by the year 2000, practically every desktop and laptop computer sold had multiple USB connectors—it had become the standard way for connecting keyboards, mice, printers, and other peripheral devices.
Suddenly any computer could have extra storage that was fast, portable, and didn’t require a power supply. This was a leap in convenience for consumers. For many uses, USB drives instantly replaced floppy disks, writable optical discs, Zip drives, and other storage devices.
The inventor of the USB flash drive remains controversial. While M-Systems had the first patent, IBM filed an invention disclosure by one of its employees who came up with the idea. There were also competing patents from Singaporean company Trek Technology and Chinese company Netac Technology. In 2000, Trek Technology became the first to commercially sell the USB flash drive using the trademarked name ThumbDrive. That same year, IBM was the first to sell the USB flash drive in the US. Called the DiskOnKey, its capacity was 8 megabytes. Today, storage capacity for USB flash drives can exceed” 1000 gigabytes.
Most USB flash drives consists of just two chips: a flash memory chip that stores the data, and a microcontroller that transfers data between the USB interface and the flash chip.
Ban, Amir, Dov Moran, and Oron Ogdan. Architecture for a universal serial bus-based PC flash disk. US Patent 6,148,354, filed April 5, 1999, and issued November 14, 2000.
Buchanan, Matt. “Object of Interest: The Flash Drive.” New Yorker online, June 14, 2013. http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/object-of-interest-the-flash-drive.