Zip Files

Zip Zop Zoom! Learn the super cool logic behind 'ZIP' Files!

If you’ve ever wanted top send a huge file over the internet, you’ve probably had to “zip it up”. When you zip up a file, it makes the file size smaller so it’s easier to upload and download on the internet. But why do we “zip” files? Where did the terminology come from?

It’s easy to assume that you’re zipping up a file to make it more compact, like you’re bundling it all into one bag. The icon for a ZIP file even has a little zip on it, as if you can pull the zipper down to get at all of your files.

The origin of the ZIP file’s name, however, doesn’t have anything to do with zippers. It actually uses the alternate meaning of “zip” which means “to go fast” — like in the sentence “the cat zipped by when he heard the tuna can open.”

The reason it has this name is because the inventor of the ZIP file, Phil Katz. wanted to make a point. Back when he designed ZIP files, they weren’t called “ZIP files” at all. It went by the much-less memorable name “PKARC.”

However, another company called Systems Enhancement Associates (SEA) didn’t like this very much. This is because they, too, had a system called “ARC” which did a similar job to PKARC. As such, they told Phil Katz that he wasn’t allowed to use PKARC anymore, because ARC was owned by SEA.

Phil Katz was a little disgruntled, but he didn’t let this stop him. Instead, he and a friend decided to create a new format, called “ZIP.” The idea behind the name was that it implied that zipping a file was quick, and — more importantly — faster than using ARC. It was basically telling everyone that their version of the software could beat everyone else’s for speed — a bold claim!

You can imagine how this story went, given how we still “zip” files today, but we never “arc” them. Goes to show that Phil’s ZIP files were, indeed, faster than the competition!

Of course, these days, we tend to think of ZIP files as having zippers on them, because that’s what the icon shows us. It’s a little weird to think, however, that you can “zip up” a digital file to make it take up less room, just like you’re forcing stuff into a bag and trying to get the zipper around before it all falls out again. How do you do that with a digital file?

ZIP files achieve this by finding repeating patterns and structures and simplifying them to cut down on the amount of data a file takes up. For example, take the following sentence:

“I love cats, and I love when cats purr”

In this sentence, the words “I,” “love,” and “cats” appear two times. As such, we can create a “word directory” to make this sentence a lot shorter.

For example, we can assign each word in a sentence to a number. It’d look like this:

1 = I
2 = love
3 = cats
4 = and
5 = when
6 = purr

Not only have we broken down a 9-word sentence into 6 words, but now we can use numbers to re-write the sentence. A single number takes up less space than a word, so we can save bytes by typing our sentence like this:


Now, instead of having to store 38 characters in the original sentence, it only needs to store 11 in our new number-based sentence. That saves a bit of room!

Of course, if you wanted to show this sentence to someone else, you can’t just give them the numbers. After all, they have no idea what each number means!

As such, you’d need to re-translate the sentence by matching each number to each word and writing it back out in English. This is what your PC does when it “unzips” a file; it makes all the files easier for your computer to read.

What ways could you squash down repetitive data to make it take up less space? Who knows — your method may become the next ZIP file!

Learn More

How File Compression Works

Phillip Katz

How to open a zip file

Working with Zip files

History of Data compression

Principles of data compression

Guide to Data Compression

ARC format

Data Compression for kids

Data compression – NASA


  • Simon Batt

    Simon Batt is a UK-based tech enthusiast and all-around geek. His favourite things are cups of tea, cats, and new gadgets, even though they never mix well.

Also In The February 2021 Issue

Low code and no code software makes it possible for non-technical people to create software.

Learn how to program through a series of fun and dynamic activities in Patricia Foster's book!

Learn how to make a contact microphone for picking up the vibrations in your sonic experiments!

If you can't go out to an art museum, then bring the art museum to you using Sketchup!

Find out how people are saving classic games through restoration and archiving!

Find out what a giant wooden horse and your cyber security have in common!

Learn about some of the ways people use to communicate before the internet!

An interview with Solderpunk about the inspiration and the creation of Gemini!

Forks are used in software development to describe how projects and software work.

Computer science unplugged teaches how computers and computer science works, without the use of computers.

Links from the bottom of all the February 2021 articles, collected in one place for you to print, share, or bookmark.

Interesting stories about science and technology for February 2021.

Interested but not ready to subscribe? Sign-up for our free monthly email newsletter with curated site content and a new issue email announcement that we send every two months.

No, thanks!