Recovering Data From A Vintage MFM Drive

Even if you aren’t a vintage computer aficionado, you’re probably aware that older computer hard drives were massive and didn’t hold much data. Imagine a drive that weighs several pounds, and only holds 1/1000th of what today’s cheapest USB flash drives can. But what you might not realize is that if you go back long enough, the drives didn’t just have lower capacity, they utilized fundamentally different technology and relied on protocols which are today little more than historical footnotes.

A case in point is the circa 1984 Modified Frequency Modulation (MFM) drive which [Michał Słomkowski] was tasked with recovering some files from. You can’t just pop this beast into a USB enclosure; copying files from it required an interesting trip down computing’s memory lane, with a sprinkling of modern techniques that are sure to delight hackers who still like to dip their toes into the MS-DOS waters from time to time.

The drive, a MiniScribe 2012, has its own WD1002A-WX1 8-bit ISA controller card. [Michał] is the kind of guy who just so happens to have an ISA-compatible AT motherboard laying around, but he didn’t have the correct cooler for its Pentium processor. He stuck a random heatsink down onto it with a rubber band and set the clock speed as low as possible, which worked well enough to get him through the copying process.

Not wanting to fiddle with floppies, [Michał] then put together a setup which would let him PXE boot MS-DOS 6.22 under Arch Linux. He used PXELINUX, part of the syslinux package, and created an entry for DOS in the configuration file under the pxelinux.cfg directory. He then installed netboot which combines a DHCP and TFTP server into one simple package, and configured it for the MAC address of the AT machine’s 3com 3C905C-TXM network card.

With the hardware and operating system up and running, it was just a matter of getting the files off of the MFM drive and onto something a bit more contemporary. He tried to copy them to a secondary IDE drive, but it seemed there was some kind of conflict as both drives wouldn’t operate at the same time. So he pulled another solution from his bag of tricks: using a USB mass storage device on MS-DOS. By emulating a SCSI drive, he was able to get a standard flash drive plugged into a PCI USB card working, which ultimately dragged these ~35 year old files kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

We love keeping old hardware alive here at Hackaday, and documented methods to not only PXE boot DOS but use USB storage devices when you get it up and running will hopefully inspire some more hackers to blow the dust off that old 386 in the attic.

Making Vintage Computing Easy, The Hard Way

If you want to not take for granted how easy and seamless computers have become, take up vintage computing as a hobby. If you venture down the retro path, you’ll quickly question how anyone ever got any useful work done with computers, and the farther back you go in computer history, the more difficult everything seems to become.

Case in point: how do you easily transfer files between a home-brew PC/XT and your modern desktop? Back in the day we did it with null modem cables or by sneaker-netting stacks of floppies, but [Scott M. Baker] found another way — putting a Raspberry Pi on the ISA bus as a virtual floppy drive. The heart of the ISA card is an IDT7130, a 1-kb RAM chip that allows simultaneous asynchronous access over dual ports. One port talks to the ISA bus and the other talks to the GPIO of the Pi, after level-shifting to make everything voltage compatible, of course. [Scott] wrote a driver for the card, plugged a Pi Zero W into the header pins, and threw a Python server together that makes local images available to the shared memory on the card. The upshot of this is that the retro machine thinks it has a floppy in it, but it’s actually a server. The video below has tons of detail and shows the card in action. Pretty slick.

[Scott]’s projects are always fun to check out, and he really seems to have the retro life dialed in. Whether it’s old jukebox hacks or a Unix-ish OS for Z80s, there’s plenty to learn. Although we’d like to see more about that PC/XT in the video; are those Nixies we spy along the front panel?

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A Retrocomputer Disk On A Chip

There have been a lot of different mass storage methods over the relatively short lifespan of the computer. Magnetic tapes, drums, all sorts of disks, and flash memory have each had their time. Each of these new innovations required some time to become easy to use. One of the early attempts to simplify using flash memory was the M-Systems DiskOnChip device. Looking like a standard 8K JEDEC-compatible memory device, it actually provided access to a flash disk drive ranging from 16MB to 1GB. [Smbakeryt] bought some of these devices and built an ISA board to provide a disk and clock for the old 8-bit bus. You can see a video discussion about the device below.

SanDisk bought M-Systems and discontinued the devices back in 2007. Of course, you can still design flash memory into your system, but the simple and efficient interface of the DiskOnChip is no more. It is a testament to how simple the interface is that the schematic for the little board fits on a page, including the DS12885 real time clock.

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Find Instructions Hidden In Your CPU


There was a time when owning a computer meant you probably knew most or all of the instructions it could execute. Your modern PC, though, has a lot of instructions, many of them meant for specialized operating system, encryption, or digital signal processing features.

There are known undocumented instructions in a lot of x86-class CPUs, too. What’s more, these days your x86 CPU might really be a virtual machine running on a different processor, or your CPU could have a defect or a bug. Maybe you want to run sandsifter–a program that searches for erroneous or undocumented instructions. Who knows what is lurking in your CPU?

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Variable Instruction Computing: What Is Old Is New Again

Every twenty to twenty-five years, trends and fads start reappearing. 2016 is shaping up to be a repeat of 1992; the X-files is back on the air, and a three-way presidential election is a possibility. Star Trek is coming back, again. Roll these observations back another twenty-five years, and you have The Outer LimitsStar Trek, and riots at the DNC convention in Chicago.

History repeating itself is not the exclusive domain of politics and popular culture. It happens with tech, too: the cloud is just an extension of thin clients which are an extension of time-sharing. Everything old is new again.

For the last few years, Soft Machines, a fabless semiconductor company running in stealth mode, released the first preview for an entirely new processor architecture. This new architecture, VISC, offers higher performance per Watt than anything available on the market. If you’ve been paying attention for the last decade or so, the future of computing isn’t 200-Watt space heaters that also double as powerful CPUs. The future is low power machines that are good enough to run Facebook or run some JavaScript. With servers, performance per Watt is possibly the most important metric. How will Soft Machines upend the semiconductor market with new processors and new architectures? If you know your history, it shouldn’t be a surprise.

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XT IDE Controller

[Geordy] wanted to use some IDE devices but he didn’t have an interface card for his XT system, which can’t handle 16-bit  IDE. He looked around for 8-bit ISA controllers but they were hard to find and quite expensive. Lucky for him there’s an open source project that makes a solution to this problem. The XTIDE project brought together a group of vintage computing enthusiasts to design this ISA card. [Geordy] was even able to order a professional PCB from one of the forum members. He ordered the parts an soldered it together, costing about $30 total. He had a friend help him burn the code to the EEPROM but that’s easy enough to do with an Arduino, Bus Pirate, or one of several other methods. Now his grand plans at installing DOS 6.22 have been realized.

Resurrecting ISA Hardware

[Alex] had an old FM radio tuner card come his way. It used an ISA connector, a standard that went the way of the dodo in the mid-nineties. With the challenge of implementing an ISA-bus to configure the card he set out on his mission. What he came up with is a working radio using the ISA card and driven by a PIC 16F877. Join us after the break for schematic, code, and a few details. Continue reading “Resurrecting ISA Hardware”