What was the first flash drive?

Data storage technology has evolved significantly over the years to accommodate the world’s exponentially growing data storage needs. In the early days of computing in the 1940s and 1950s, primitive storage mediums like paper tape and punch cards were used. Magnetic tape, introduced in 1951, offered the first rewritable storage medium. The 1970s saw the introduction of floppy disks, an inexpensive and portable storage solution. Hard disk drives followed, providing mass storage capabilities but in a fixed, non-portable form factor. In the 1990s, a major breakthrough came with the invention of flash memory, a type of nonvolatile solid state storage that did not require moving parts. This ultimately enabled the creation of flash drives, tiny portable data storage devices that could fit in your pocket.

The invention of flash memory

Flash memory was invented in the early 1980s by Dr. Fujio Masuoka while working for Toshiba. Dr. Masuoka came up with the idea for a new type of memory chip that could be erased electronically in large blocks rather than slowly in small sections like existing EEPROM chips. His key breakthrough was using a floating gate structure on each memory cell.

As described by TechTarget, “A floating gate sits in between the control gate and the MOSFET channel of each memory cell. When a charge is placed on the floating gate, it gets trapped and stores a bit of information. To erase the bit, a high negative charge is placed on the floating gate via the control gate.” (1)

This floating gate design allowed entire sections of memory to be quickly and easily erased electronically. This became known as flash memory. Toshiba commercially launched the first flash memory chips, called NAND flash, in 1987. (2)

Early flash drive prototypes

In the late 1990s, several companies were working on developing a USB flash drive, racing to be the first to market. Some key developers include:

  • M-Systems, an Israeli company founded in 1989 by Dov Moran, developed and patented the first flash drive that went to market in 2000. The USB drive was branded as the “DiskOnKey.”
  • Trek Technology, a Singaporean company, developed a prototype thumb drive called “ThumbDrive” in 1999. Though not the first on the market, this was one of the earliest and helped popularize the “thumb drive” name.
  • IBM and Matsushita Electric (Panasonic) were also working on flash drive prototypes in the 1990s, contributing to early development.

These companies recognized the potential for a small, rewritable USB storage device based on newly emerging flash memory technology. Their work on early prototypes paved the way for the first commercial releases. (source)

The Trek ThumbDrive

In 2000, Singapore-based company Trek Technology launched the world’s first commercial USB flash drive, called the Trek ThumbDrive (1). The ThumbDrive debuted at the CeBIT technology trade show in Hanover, Germany that March. With a storage capacity of 8MB, the diminutive ThumbDrive caused a sensation at CeBIT, with over 300 orders placed within 3 days (2).

The ThumbDrive was the brainchild of Trek CEO Henn Tan. Tan envisioned a small, lightweight device that could supplement computer storage and allow easy transfer of data between devices. He charged his engineers with developing a USB storage device that would be no bigger than an adult’s thumb. The resulting ThumbDrive was sleek, durable, and highly portable – an immediate hit with consumers and technology companies alike.

While competitors quickly followed Trek’s lead, the Singapore company is rightly credited with inventing the world’s first USB flash drive and pioneering the thumb drive industry. The ThumbDrive’s debut marked the dawn of a new era in portable digital storage.

(1) https://www.trek2000.com.sg/

(2) https://spectrum.ieee.org/thumb-drive

Capacity and size

The first commercially available USB flash drive, the Trek ThumbDrive, was sold in early 2000 and had a capacity of 8 MB (Source). This was an extremely small amount of storage, especially compared to hard drives at the time. However, 8 MB of capacity was still useful for transferring small files between computers.

In addition to the limited storage capacity, first generation USB flash drives were large compared to later models. The Trek ThumbDrive was over 3 inches long and 0.8 inches in diameter – much bulkier than modern flash drives (Source). The initial goal was simply creating a rewritable and portable storage device, so size reduction was not a priority. But the large physical size did make carrying and using early USB flash drives somewhat inconvenient.

While 8 MB may seem minuscule today, it was an important milestone that demonstrated the potential of solid state flash memory in a compact portable device. The ThumbDrive proved there was consumer demand for removable data storage that didn’t require floppy disks. And its capacity rapidly increased over subsequent generations, while physical sizes shrank dramatically.

Advancements in capacity

The storage capacity of flash drives has increased exponentially over time, following Moore’s law. In 2000, the original Trek ThumbDrive had a capacity of just 8MB. By 2005, capacities reached 1GB. In 2010, 16GB and 32GB drives became common. By 2015, 128GB and 256GB drives were available. In 2020, 1TB and 2TB flash drives entered the market. This immense growth in capacity is made possible by advancements in NAND flash memory technology, allowing increasingly greater storage densities.

According to Moore’s law, the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles about every two years. This prediction has held true for flash memory, enabling exponential growth in storage capacity. Improved manufacturing processes allow flash memory cells to be produced at ever-smaller sizes. Multi-level cell (MLC) and triple-level cell (TLC) technologies also boost density by storing multiple bits per memory cell.

Higher density flash chips directly translate to larger capacity USB flash drives. Whereas the original ThumbDrive contained a single 128Mb chip, modern drives may contain multiple stacked 1TB chips. This growth in storage capacity has transformed flash drives from mere novelty items to essential mainstream storage devices.

Decreasing size

The original Trek ThumbDrive had a storage capacity of 8MB and was slightly larger than an actual thumb. But over time, engineers made major innovations to enable smaller and smaller USB flash drives.[1] One key advancement was the ability to stack NAND flash memory chips vertically using a ball grid array surface-mount packaging technique. This allowed multiple memory chips to be combined in a single USB drive package.[2]

Chipmakers also moved to ever-smaller production processes, enabling them to fit more storage capacity into a smaller space. For example, Toshiba announced 30nm NAND flash chips in 2009, which were 50% smaller than previous generations.[3] This allowed USB drives with capacities of 64GB and higher to be small enough to fit on a keychain. Today, modern USB drives use 15nm or smaller production processes to achieve capacities upwards of 1TB while being tiny enough to lose if you aren’t careful.

[1] https://superuser.com/questions/1303872/decrease-flashdrive-capacity
[2] https://www.diskgenius.com/how-to/how-to-restore-usb-drive-back-to-full-capacity.php
[3] https://www.diskpart.com/articles/shrink-volume-usb-flash-drive-6289.html

Market adoption

USB flash drives saw rapid market adoption and growth in popularity in the early to mid 2000s. According to Vantage Market Research, the global USB flash drive market was valued at $7.62 billion in 2022 and is projected to reach $13.1 billion by 2030, growing at a CAGR of 7.2% between 2022 and 2030. The market saw substantial growth as USB flash drives offered a convenient, small, and affordable way to store and transfer data compared to floppy disks and CDs. Their plug-and-play functionality and compatibility across devices like computers and media players fueled mass appeal.

By 2005, USB flash drives had largely replaced floppy disks and CD-RWs as the most popular external data storage devices for consumer and business use. According to a report by the Consumer Electronics Association in 2005, USB flash drives had taken 15% of the rewritable storage market in the previous year alone. Their market share continued expanding dramatically compared to CD-RWs and other removable media through the late 2000s.

Impact on technology

The invention of the flash drive had a profound impact on technology and revolutionized how data was stored and transferred. According to https://www.usbcompany.co.uk/blog/evolution-of-usb-drives-a-journey-through-technological-advancements/, the key effects of flash drives on computing and data transfer include:

Portability – Flash drives allowed people to easily carry large amounts of data with them in their pocket. This new level of portability changed workflows and enabled new use cases like quickly sharing files between computers.

Speed – The USB interface provided much faster transfer speeds compared to older storage mediums like floppy disks. This acceleration helped boost productivity.

Capacity – Early flash drives held more data than other portable options like floppies or CDs. Later advances in capacity enabled flash drives to store entire operating systems, programs, and media libraries.

Convenience – The plug-and-play functionality of flash drives provided a very simple and convenient way to access, store, and transfer files. They were easier to use than many other data storage options.

Security – Flash drives introduced both risks and benefits to data security. Encryption capabilities helped protect sensitive data in a portable form, but the drives’ small size also made them easy to lose or steal.

Overall, the invention of flash drives profoundly accelerated the pace of business and personal computing by enabling a new level of data accessibility and transferability. Their physical portability, ease of use, speed, and steadily advancing capacities transformed workflows around personal storage and sharing.


The first commercially available USB flash drive, the Trek ThumbDrive, had a profound impact on the computing world. Though its storage capacity started at only 8MB, it provided a convenient and portable way to transfer files between computers that was faster and had more capacity than floppy disks.

According to the History of USB Flash Drives, the ThumbDrive helped popularize the USB interface and paved the way for USB to become a standard feature on computers. As flash memory improved, capacities increased exponentially while prices decreased. This made flash drives ubiquitous for personal file storage and transfer.

Today, flash drives are an essential data storage device, with capacities up to 2TB. Though cloud storage provides some competition, the portability and ease of use of flash drives ensure they will continue to be popular. The Trek ThumbDrive proved the viability of flash memory storage and demonstrated its advantages over other removable media. Its legacy is the flash drive’s status as an indispensable tech accessory.

Leave a Comment