8″ Floppy On Your PC?

We should probably have a new metric for measuring mass storage performance: bytes per pound. An old IBM tape drive from the S/360 days, for example, could hold almost 6 megabytes of data. It also weighed more than a typical refrigerator. Today, a tiny postage-stamp-sized card can hold gigabytes of data and weighs — at most — a few ounces. Somewhere in the middle is the old 8 inch floppy drive. At its peak, you could cram about 1.2 megabytes on it, but even with the drive you could lift it all in one hand. These disks and their descendants ruled the computing world for a while. [Adrian asks the question: can you use an 8″ floppy drive on a PC? The answer is in the video below.

He didn’t do it on a lark. [Adrian] is getting ready to restore a TRS-80 Model II so he wanted to create some 8″test floppies. But how do you marry a 40-something-year-old drive to a modern computer? He had a few drives of unknown condition so there was nothing to do but try to get them working.

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An Ancient 8 Inch Floppy, With A PC

Most of us may have gratefully abandoned the floppy disk a decade or more since, but even today many PCs and their operating systems retain the ability to deal with these data storage relics. The PC was widely fitted with either 5.25″ or 3.5″ disk drives, but other formats such as the older 8″ discs were not a fixture in the 16-bit desktop computing world. It’s something [Jozef Bogin] has taken aim at, with his exploits in connecting a variety of 8″ drives to a PC.

In the early 1970s there were a variety of different 8″ drive standards that weren’t all entirely compatible, but a de facto standard emerged as clones of the Shuggart drives used by IBM. It’s a modified version of this interface that can be found in a PC floppy controller. While there is enough electrical compatibility to connect the two there remains a variety of connectors used on the drives. There are also a wide range of power supplies, with drives requiring 5, 12, and 24 volts, and some of them even requiring AC mains with different versions for 50Hz and 60Hz mains frequencies.

With an 8″ drive hooked up to a PC, how might DOS, or even older Windows versions, interface with it? To that end he’s created a piece of software called 8format, which not only allows 8″ disks to be formatted for the PC, but also provides a driver that replaces the BIOS floppy settings for these drives. This doesn’t work for imaging disks from other older platforms, but he provides pointers to more capable floppy controllers for that.

If these drives interest you, there’s more to be gleaned from a tale of interfacing them with 8-bit retrocomputers.

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?

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An Eight Inch Floppy For Your Retrocomputer

For people under a certain age, the 8 inch floppy disk is a historical curiosity. They might just have owned a PC that had a 5.25 inch disk drive, but the image conjured by the phrase “floppy disk” will be the hard blue plastic of the once ubiquitous 3.5 inch disk. Even today, years after floppies shuffled off this mortal coil, we still see the 3.5 inch disk as the save icon in so many of our software packages.

For retro computing enthusiasts though, there is an attraction to the original floppy  from the 1970s. Mass storage for microcomputers can hardly come in a more retro format. [Scott M. Baker] evidently thinks so, for he has bought a pair of Qume 8 inch floppy drives, and interfaced them to his CPM-running RC2014 Z80-based retrocomputer.

He goes into detail on the process of selecting a drive as there are several variants of the format, and interfacing the 50 pin Shuggart connector on these drives with the more recent 34 pin connector. To aid in this last endeavour he’s created an interface PCB which he promises to share on OSH Park.

The article provides an interesting insight into the control signals used by floppy drives, as well as the unexpected power requirements of an 8 inch drive. They need mains AC, 24VDC, and 5VDC, so for the last two he had to produce his own power supply.

He’s presented the system in a video which we’ve put below the break. Very much worth watching if you’ve never seen one of these monsters before, it finishes with a two-drive RC2014 copying files between drives.

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