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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