ASCII by Jason Scott

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Floppy Disks: It’s Too Late —

Someone has to break it to you, and that person is me.

It’s over. You waited too long. You procrastinated or made excuses or otherwise didn’t think about it or care. You didn’t do anything and it’s too late now.

I’m talking about Floppy Disks. And I mean the five-and-a-quarter (5 1/4″) floppy disks that actually are somewhat floppy and which are long and flat and which were the mainstay of home computing for well up and over a decade, back then. A decade, I hope I’ve made clear, that means quite a bit to me. And the history, the thoughts and dreams and knowledge and information that people put onto those floppy disks with a grinding noise and a large LED lighting up and flickering? It’s gone. Three-and-a-half-inch floppy disks, which are not really floppy at all and which got a real hayday in the waning years of the 1980s and the 1990s? Not as gone as the fives but definitely in bed in the ward that things go into but don’ t really come out of, but which you can still visit, if you remember to.

If you still have boxes of floppies sitting in your attic or basement or grandparents’ place or wherever else, I’m telling you the days of it being a semi-dependable storehouse are over. It’s been too long, too much, and you’ve asked too much of what the floppies were ever designed to do. If you or someone helping you gets data off of it, then it’s luck and chance, not engineering and proper expectation. A lot of promises were made back then, very big promises about the dependability, and by most standards, those promises came out pretty darn good – it has often been the case of extracting data from floppies long after the company that wrote the software, that made the computer, that manufactured the disk drive parts, and manufactured the disk have gone into the Great Not Here.  You could be a totally different person, with people who you helped create running around your feet and many years younger than these floppies, and you could pull data off them to show the little people what their parent was up to so long ago. Maybe even get them excited about their turn at the screen and keyboard when the time came. It was like getting two sodas for one buck out of the soda machine. Cool!

No longer. Edge cases exist, and will always exist, but the ship is sinking; it’s not seaworthy. With some perseverance and faced against all the odds stacked against you, something might get out of these poor black squares, but I would not count on it.

Why am I telling you this?

I am telling you this because I am grabbing you by the fucking collar and shaking very hard because it is obvious you need to be shaken very hard and told that this is it. This is the endgame for floppies. We went over the hump, and the chances of rescue are slim to none now, but there are still chances. It’s a chance that needs to be taken now.

If you have an archive or cache or hoard of floppies, you need to get in touch with me. I will help get the data off of them for you, whatever piecemeal amount is still thriving on there. We’ll get errors up the wazoo, and some of them will be simply unreasonable, but it has to be done, I have to try.

Archiving history is now my full time job. Let me tell you how much I love that. I love it THIS MUCH.

So I’m throwing myself into the fire. I have people who have said they’ll step forward and help this happen. We can transfer the data off the floppies, get a hold of history before it goes into the zero device.  Get in touch with me.

And please, one other group.

There are libraries, archives and collections out there with floppies. They probably never got funding or time to take the data off – there’s a great chance the floppies are considered plain old acquisition items and objects, like books or a brooch or a duvet cover. They’re not. They’re temporary storage spaces for precious data that has faded beyond retrieval. If nobody got around to pulling that information off, then a fundamental goal of many of these places dissolved under their noses and they’ve failed. I’m willing to forgive and forget, myself, if we can just ferret out these caches and help the items get into a more stable state. (As an aside, the conclusions of this study are wrong, although I appreciate the effort.)

Help me with this, before it’s too late. Because it is too late.

Help me now.

Update: There’s now a page on the Archive Team Wiki that I have created to give people options and information about the transfer of floppy disks into a more modern storage location.  Please read or contribute.


Categorised as: computer history

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79 Comments

  1. Kieron Wilkinson says:

    nimbus: That seems to be a floppy emulator of some sort rather than an imaging tool (?)

    To get everything off a disk, without having to worry about copy protection schemes, you can use KryoFlux (http://kryoflux.com). Admission of bias: I’m one of the developers.

    Given a tool like this, you can accomplish much. Here is one rather cool example – being able to visually see the condition of your disk data.
    http://softpres.org/kryoflux:ui:stream-plot

    A question you can now get an answer to: “Why can’t I get a good read of this disk?”

  2. HoppingFun says:

    Looking over two shelves of old software, some of it still barely played and a few even shrink-wrapped—my archival copies of Scholastic Microzine. I’ve been wondering about how to access my interactive stories from the disks (even text/print out would be great to have) and found a website where that’s happening to some degree via emulator something or another. Jason, we should talk. :D

  3. Chris says:

    I found a dozen 5.25″ floppies in my desk. What’s the easiest way for people with just a small collection of floppies to retrieve our dusty data?? :)

  4. TPRJones says:

    Hey, now! Don’t Copy That Floppy!

  5. Laura says:

    I still had two floppies. Kept for sentimental reasons. But, my nephew (damned teenagers!) laughed at me. So now they are homeless somewhere in a landfill. I had long ago copied the data, what was left of it at the time.

  6. datajerk says:

    It not too late.

    I recently backed up all my early ’80s Apple II diskettes as well as my mid-’80s 400KB Mac diskettes. 100% success rate. Luck? I don’t think so.

    Tip: Local classifieds.

    I acquired an old Mac and Apple IIe within the last 3 months for $50 each. Once I confirmed that each diskette was readable it didn’t take long after a few Google searches to start backing up to a modern computer.

    Not only do I have my “memories” backed up, but I can still use them as-is with emulators. I use Virtual ][ and Mini vMac for Apple IIe and MacSE emulation. On my iPad I use ActiveGS to run my old Apple II warez.

    Your floppies can live-on.

  7. Mung Kinok says:

    Well I did think that I might have a look at my old floppies to see what might be on them – but then I realised that back then the whole storage of one floppy was just a couple of well-compressed jpegs worth – so probably nothing so interesting. Just a bunch of “Word Perfect” documents, no graphics, courier font only at the printer. This web page reminds me a bit of those times being coloured text on black background.

    Actually the first floppy I used was in 1978 – 5.25″ and stored 110kbytes. Ran on an external drive to an Apple II+ with 32kbytes ram – so 110kbytes seemed pretty handy to us. Programming in Basic you could do amazing amount of things though, compared with pencil paper and a slide rule!

  8. Jayson Smith says:

    Just a longshot request. Does anyone happen to have a copy of a program called “Type Talk” by Lorin software? It was a talking typing teaching program for the Apple IIe which used the Echo II speech synthesizer. It was copy protected, but I found a way around that. Only problem is, the only copy I have has a bad sector in one of the programs, and I don’t know of anyone else who has a copy. Sorry if this is inappropriate, but I haven’t found any copies in my searching. If anyone has it, my Email, obscured of course! is zzqzratzqqzqguyzzqz at zzinsightzqzqbbzqzq.zzqzqzqcom remove all z and q!

  9. Chris says:

    Nevermind floppies..somewhere in my parents’ house is a spool of reel-to-reel audiotape that has a circa 1984 message base dump from a local Atari AMIS BBS on it. Back in those days, you could record the mark and space tones of a 300 baud modem off your telephone line and directly onto audiotape; you could then play what you recorded back into your modem later, and the captured text would scroll right on down your screen (verrrry slowly, of course!). A bit of redneck engineering that actually worked, and that tape is probably still readable 25+ years later, if I only I could find it again.

  10. John W. says:

    Not that I have any laying around but what is the procedure for recovering old main frame reel to reel tapes or even data on punch cards?

  11. Nik Gibbs says:

    To Steven O’Donnell: back up old tape games in FLAC or some other suitable audio format. Some emulators have preferred formats for ‘playback’, so maybe look into those first.

  12. if you’ve got TRS-80 floppies Ira at ira@trs-80.com will dump them for you.

    Please, before it’s too late!

    p.s. he’s picky about “leopard spots” aka mold on the disks which gunk up the read heads but besides that please get a hold of him get your data xferrd asap

  13. nohemi floyd says:

    where can i find an 8in floppy! i need one! please anyone?

  14. D says:

    Yes, CD-Rs are in trouble. Back in the late 1990s I was very much into copying TurboGrafx, PlayStation and Saturn discs.

    Last August, I decided it was time to rip them all to ISO and store them on a mirrored RAID for posterity.

    I had a failure rate of about 21% on 400 CDs … Thankfully the original pressed disks have held up so I can still buy most of the things I lost.

  15. [...] have a lot of topics to discuss with Jason, including his personal project to rescue data saved on floppy discs (we’ll explain what those are in the show, kids) and his personal vendetta against Wikipedia. [...]

  16. [...] fortunately Jason Scott is wrong when it comes to my floppies. The few I tested (starting with completely unimportant ones, and [...]

  17. [...] drive is what I use to create “images” of data stored on old magnetic media. As Jason Scott has powerfully stated, it may well already be too late for much of this generation of computer history, as the floppies [...]

  18. Bruce Murphy says:

    I suppose I got lucky. I had a huge collection of software on various PC formats which I backed up to CD-R about a decade ago, seeing that the end was coming.

    Rather foolishly, the nicely catalogued collection of software didn’t end up including all the discs with my personal data from the last 20-some years.

    Spurred on by this blog post, I just bought some necessary cables, collected random parts, and fired up a computer I bought over 15 years ago to see what I could get back. Despite the deeply alarming noises coming from the disk drive, I’ve so far read several dozen (360k) 5.25″ floppies successfully. Even when using cheap media, those were always vastly more reliable than any of the high density ones.

    I know I was lucky, but I was also careful. The 21-year-ago me saved a lot of those files in various archive formats of the day, but I put a copy of the decompression program on the same disc as the archive. This helps a lot, as does the archive of software needed to actually read the files.

  19. [...] This becomes particularly troubling when we consider that publishers began releasing software on floppy disk over 30 years ago. Most of those disks are now unreadable, and the software stored on them has become garbled beyond repair. If you’ve been meaning to back up those old floppies in your attic, I have bad news: it’s probably too late. [...]

  20. [...] This becomes particularly troubling when we consider that publishers began releasing software on floppy disk over 30 years ago. Most of those disks are now unreadable, and the software stored on them has become garbled beyond repair. If you’ve been meaning to back up those old floppies in your attic, I have bad news: it’s probably too late. [...]

  21. [...] USB interface to connect it to my laptop now. Fingers crossed it’ll work and it’s not too late for my 20 year old Commodore 64 5 1/4 discs. I tend to agree that if it wasn’t for piracy [...]

  22. [...] after ordering both of those I read this post saying it was too late to archive disks. The author, Jason Scott, warned that we had left it too [...]

  23. [...] Scott says it's too late to start saving floppy disks. But we can sure as heck remember them — and especially the sleeves they came [...]

  24. Ralph H says:

    It would be great to see a list of software preservation sites in major cities.

    Also, does anyone in Boston have a Kryoflux setup?

  25. [...] floppies—there were still a great many 5.25" disks that I had not imaged. And, as we all know, it's (almost) too late for these. If I ever want them, I need to image them basically [...]

  26. Brian says:

    Fail! A few companies STILL use test equipment that have 3.5 inch floppy slots for data storage. Newer test equipment is the folly of corporations that would have money to burn basically, and besides there is not a newer Dynamic Signal Analyzer that has a USB interface – at least not one I can use. Don’t write off the same technology that delivered the birth of what you use now. It’s still in use.

  27. [...] In fact, according to Jason Scott, it already has … [...]