Preserving Floppy Disks

Time is almost up for magnetic storage from the 80s and 90s. Various physical limitations in storage methods from this era are conspiring to slowly degrade the data stored on things like tape, floppy disks, and hard disk drives, and after several decades data may not be recoverable anymore. It’s always worth trying to back it up, though, especially if you have something on your hands like critical evidence or court records on a nearly 50-year-old floppy disk last written to in 1993 using a DEC PDP-11.

This project all started when an investigation unit in Maryland approached the Bloop Museum with a request to use their antique computer resources to decode the information on a 5.25″ floppy disk. Even finding a floppy disk drive of this size is a difficult task, but this was further compounded not just by the age of the disk but that the data wasn’t encoded in the expected format. Using a GreaseWeazle controlled by a Raspberry Pi, they generated an audio file from the data on the disk to capture all available data, and then used that to work backwards to get to the usable information.

After some more trials with converting the analog information to digital and a clue that the data on the disk was not fragmented, they realized they were looking at data from a digital stenography machine and were finally able to decode it into something useful. Of course, stenography machines are dark magic in their own right so just getting this record still requires a stenographer to make much sense out of it.

Retrotechtacular: The Floppy Disk Orphaned By Linux

About a week ago, Linus Torvalds made a software commit which has an air about it of the end of an era. The code in question contains a few patches to the driver for native floppy disc controllers. What makes it worthy of note is that he remarks that the floppy driver is now orphaned. Its maintainer no longer has working floppy hardware upon which to test the software, and Linus remarks that “I think the driver can be considered pretty much dead from an actual hardware standpoint“, though he does point out that active support remains for USB floppy drives.

It’s a very reasonable view to have arrived at because outside the realm of retrocomputing the physical rather than virtual floppy disk has all but disappeared. It’s well over a decade since they ceased to be fitted to desktop and laptop computers, and where once they were a staple of any office they now exist only in the “save” icon on your wordprocessor. The floppy is dead, and has been for a long time.

The save icon in LibreOffice and other desktop software is probably the last place the floppy exerts a hold over us.
The save icon in LibreOffice and other desktop software is probably the last place the floppy exerts a hold over us.

Still, Linus’ quiet announcement comes as a minor jolt to anyone of A Certain Age for whom the floppy disk and the computer were once inseparable. When your digital life resided not in your phone or on the cloud but in a plastic box of floppies, those disks meant something. There was a social impact to the floppy as well as a technological one, they were a physical token that could contain your treasured ephemeral possessions, a modern-day keepsake locket for the digital age. We may have stopped using them over a decade ago, but somehow they are still a part of our computing DNA.

So while for some of you the Retrotechtacular series is about rare and unusual technology from years past, it’s time to take a look at something ubiquitous that we all think we know. Where did the floppy disk come from, where is it still with us, and aside from that save icon what legacies has it bestowed upon us?

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Floppy Disk Orphaned By Linux”

Recovering Data From Floppies With Errors

Those of us of advancing years will remember the era of the floppy disc. Maybe not that of the 8-inch drive, but probably its 5.25-inch and certainly its 3.5-inch cousins. Some will remember the floppy disc fondly, while for others there will be recollections of slow and unreliable media with inadequate capacity, whose ability to hold data for any length of time was severely questionable. Add three decades to the time a disc has spent in storage, and those data errors become frequent. The life of a retrocomputing enthusiast hoping to preserve aged software is made extremely difficult by them, and [] has a few tips to help with recovery.

It’s written with specific reference to Commodore 5.25-inch floppies, but aside from some of the specific software, the techniques could be applied to any discs. Most interesting is his explanation of the mechanisms that lead to bad discs or bad sectors, before he looks at some of the mitigations that might be employed. Cleaning the disc or the drive head with alcohol is explored, then taking a dump of the raw data for detailed inspection and disassembly in search of checksum errors. If in your youth a floppy disc was just something you put in a drive and you never investigated further, perhaps this piece will fill in some of the gaps.

If the thought of a stack of Commodore 64 floppies fills you with dread, how about using an emulator?

Header image: PrixeH [CC BY-SA 3.0].

Emulating A Hard Drive With The Raspberry Pi

[Chris] recently moved a vintage IBM 5150 – the original PC – into his living room. While this might sound odd to people who are not part of the Hackaday readership, it actually makes a lot of sense; this PC is a great distraction-free writing workstation, vintage gaming machine, and looks really, really cool. It sat unused for a while, simply because [Chris] didn’t want to swap out piles of floppies, and he doesn’t have a hard drive or controller card for this machine. After reviewing what other retrocomputer fans have done in this situation, he emulated a hard drive with a Raspberry Pi.

The traditional solution to the ‘old PC without a hard drive’ problem is the XTIDE project. XTIDE is a controller card that translates relatively new IDE cards (or an emulated drive on another computer) as a hard drive on the vintage PC, just like a controller card would. Since a drive can be emulated by another computer, [Chris] grabbed the closest single board computer he had on hand, in this case a Raspberry Pi.

After burning an EPROM with XTIDE to drive an old network card, [Chris] set to work making the XTIDE software function on the Raspberry Pi side of things. The hardware on the modern side of the is just a Pi and a USB to RS232 adapter, set to a very low bitrate. Although the emulated drive is slow, it is relatively huge for computer of this era: 500 Megabytes of free space. It makes your head spin to think of how many vintage games and apps you can fit on that thing!