You might think the era of the 3.5 inch “floppy” disk is over, and of course, you’d be right. But when has that ever stopped hackers before? Just because these disks are no longer being manufactured doesn’t mean you can’t find them, or that the appropriate drives aren’t readily available. In fact, as [Ladyada] explained during this week’s Floppy Interfacing Hack Chat with Adafruit, the ongoing chip shortages mean its often easier and cheaper to track down old hardware like this than it is modern microcontrollers and other high-tech components.
What awaits the brave hacker that picks up a box of random floppies and a dusty old drive at the local thrift store? More than you might expect. As the Hack Chat goes on, it becomes increasingly obvious that these quaint pieces of antiquated technology can be rather difficult to work with. For one thing there are more formats out there than you’ve probably considered, and maddeningly, not all drives are able to read all types (even if they say they do). That means a disk which might seem like a dud on one drive could work perfectly fine in another, which is why the team at Adafruit recommend having a few on hand if you want to maximize your chances of success.
Now here comes the tricky part: unless you happen to have a 1990s vintage computer laying around, getting these drives hooked up is decidedly non-trivial. Which is why Adafruit have been researching how to interface the drives with modern microcontrollers. This includes the Adafruit_Floppy project, which aims to port the well known Greaseweazle and FluxEngine firmwares to affordable MCUs like the Raspberry Pi Pico. There’s also been promising developments with bringing native floppy support to CircuitPython, which would make reading these disks as easy as writing a few lines of code.
But wait, surely this is a solved problem? Why not just pick up a cheap USB floppy drive from the A to Z online retailer we all love to hate? Unfortunately, these gadgets are something of a mixed bag. [Ladyada] pulls one apart on camera to show that what you’re actually getting with one of these units is a new old stock laptop floppy drive hooked up to a dodgy purpose-built chip that connects to the original 26-pin flex cable and offers up a USB interface. That would be great, if it wasn’t for the fact that the chip is exceedingly selective about what kind of disks it will read. If you’re only worried about bog standard IBM-formatted disks they can work in a pinch, but like they say, you get what you pay for.
So is it all just academic? Is there really any reason to use a floppy disk in 2022? The fine folks at Adafruit would argue that the skills necessary to read usable data out of a stream of magnetic flux changes may very well come in handy in unexpected ways down the road. But even if not, there’s at least one good reason to cultivate the technology required to reliably read from these once ubiquitous storage devices: archiving the data stored on these disks before they invariably succumb to so-called “bit rot” and are potentially lost to history.
While the concept might seem quaint to us today, microfiche was once a very compelling way to store and distribute documents. By optically shrinking them down to just a few percent of their original size, hundreds of pages could be stored on a piece of high-resolution film. A box of said films could store the equivalent of several gigabytes of text and images, and reading them back only required a relatively simple projection machine.
As [Joerg Hoppe] explains in the write-up for his automatic microfiche scanner, companies such as Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) made extensive use of this technology to distribute manuals, schematics, and even source code to their service departments in the 70s and 80s. Luckily, that means hard copies of all this valuable information still exist in excellent condition decades after DEC published it. The downside, of course, is that microfiche viewers aren’t exactly something you can pick up at the local Big Box electronics store these days. To make this information accessible to current and future generations, it needs to be digitized.
[Joerg] notes there are commercial services that would do this for you, but the prices are just too high to be practical for the hobbyist. The same for turn-key microfiche scanners. Which is why he’s developed this hardware and software system specifically to digitize DEC documents. The user enters in the information written on the top of the microfiche into the software, and then places it onto the machine itself which is based on a cheap 3D printer.
The device moves a Canon DSLR camera and appropriate magnifying optics in two dimensions over the film, using the Z axis to fine-tune the focus, and then commands the camera to take an image of each page. These are then passed through various filters to clean up the image, and compiled into PDFs that can be easily viewed on modern hardware. The digital documents can be further run though optical character recognition (OCR) so the text can be easily searched and manipulated. In the video after the break you can see that the whole process is rather involved, but once the settled into the workflow, [Joerg] says his scanner can digitize 100 pages in around 10 minutes.
The technical details on the electronics side are unfortunately a bit light, as the page on the [Iontank] site simply says all of the internals were replaced with “solid-state hardware” and an Amiga emulator. To us that sounds like a Raspberry Pi is now filling in for the Amiga’s original motherboard, but that’s just a guess. The page does note that they went through the trouble of making sure the original mouse and keyboard still worked, so it stands to reason a couple microcontrollers are also along for the ride doing translation duty.
While we don’t know much about the computers, [Iontank] do provide some interesting insight into developing the faux CRTs sitting atop the non-Amigas. There were some promising rear-projection experiments conducted early on, but in the end, they decided to use a standard LCD behind a milled acrylic lens. This not only made for a perfect fit inside the original monitor enclosures, but gave the screen that convex depth that’s missing on modern flat panels.
The times they are a-changin’. It used to be that no household was complete without a drawer filled with an assortment of different sizes and types of batteries, but today more and more of our gadgets are using integrated rechargeable cells. Whether or not that’s necessarily an improvement is probably up for debate, but the fact of the matter is that some of these old batteries are becoming harder to find as time goes on.
Which is why [Stephen Arsenault] wants to preserve as many of them as possible. Not in some kind of physical battery museum (though that does sound like the sort of place we’d like to visit), but digitally in the form of 3D models and spec sheets. The idea being that if you find yourself in need of an oddball, say the PRAM battery for a Macintosh SE/30, you could devise your own stand-in with a printed shell.
The rather brilliantly named Battery Backups project currently takes the form of a Thingiverse Group, which allows other alkaline aficionados to submit their own digitized cells. The cells that [Stephen] has modeled so far include not only the STL files for 3D printing, but the CAD source files in several different flavors so you can import them into your tool of choice.