ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

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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  1. Jason Scott says:

    As a footnote, a number of organizations of the library/archive type are beginning to take this seriously, but they’re really 20 years too late, so while the effort is appreciated, it’s on the level of looking at a decimated ecosystem and going “now what was all that about?”.

  2. geneb says:

    I’m set up to archive Commodore media (1541, 1571 & 1581), both normal and copy protected disks. I can also process most 5.25″ CP/M formats including Kaypro. I’d be happy to help!

  3. rexxar says:

    Ack! I’ve got about 200 C64 disks that I’ve been meaning to archive forever.. Guess I should get my 1541’s out, huh.

  4. Jayson Smith says:

    I’ve been pretty lucky in this regard. I had a collection of software for the Apple II line of computers on 5.25 floppies. Luckily, we had two copies of many of the disks, since I was a kid at the time, so we had one master copy and I had a copy of my own. This was so that, if I managed to trash some disk, it could be remade. I eventually wound up with the original disks. My personal copies I had as a kid had somehow gotten lost in the shuffle, you know how it goes. And even these weren’t originals in the true sense of the word. These were mostly collections of free/PD programs. As expected, a few of these decayed over time and my efforts to rescue a few files from beyond the grave met with total failure. How many of you remember that annoying “Bzzzz” of the Apple II disk drive recalibrating its head after a read failure?

    A few years ago I decided to take a night and image everything I could get to copy. And so I did. But I still wanted those programs I couldn’t recover. Where were those other copies?

    By pure chance, I discovered them just a few months ago. And believe it or not, most of them were still good. In one case, I had two copies of the same disk, both of which had errors. Thankfully, the errors were in different files, so I was able to use the best parts of both disks to piece together one complete copy.

    Now I know I was lucky in this case. Many people reading this probably have, or know someone who has, collections of disks where those are the only copies that exist today. In some cases, these may be the only copies of the data that ever existed in any form throughout the known universe. With these disks, if they’re gone, they’re gone. You don’t have the option of hoping someday you find the other copies you know should be around here somewhere. Because there are no other copies. This is it. If it’s unrecoverable, the data is lost, end of story.

  5. Asumi Kimagura says:

    Excellent reminder. I need to start archiving. Now.

    By the way, Jason, do you have a google+ account?

  6. Chris says:

    So what about the 8″ floppy disk I have for the IBM Series/1? 😉

    I really do need to try to salvage the stuff off the old Apple // disks. I did some (simple) reactor modeling on the old //e back before I changed majors from Nuclear Engineering to computer programming. Oh, and Hard Hat Mack 🙂

  7. MagerValp says:

    Actually, double density 5.25″ disks, the kind used with C64, Apple II, etc, have survived pretty well and the large majority can be imaged without issue. 3.5″ disks are much more likely to have errors, and 1.44 MB HD disks are a crapshoot. Hell, they barely managed to contain data back in the 90s.

  8. Jayson Smith says:

    Don’t talk to me about 1.44MB floppies! Before the advent of zip disks, USB sticks, and Ethernet connections most home users could afford, they were a necessary part of life. But I can’t count the times I’d copy a few files to a floppy, then take it to another computer. Literally one or two minutes after the files were copied, the destination computer couldn’t read them. Data error reading drive A: Abort, retry, no more like throw the stupid thing at the nearest wall! It got to the point where any time I needed something on a floppy to work, like at a remote location where I didn’t have access to the original computer, I would copy it two or three times on the floppy or maybe bring two or three copies. The times I didn’t do this tended to be the times the only copy I had with me was bad. Not quite sure why things love to turn out that way.

  9. Jose Vasconcellos says:

    What should I do with my 8″ disks? 🙂

  10. Jeff Rivett says:

    I appreciate the sentiment, and I agree that anyone with information stored only on floppy disks really needs to archive it ASAP. However: floppy disks are ‘floppy’ not because of their casing, but rather because the media itself (inside the casing) is floppy. Which is why 3.5″ disks are, in fact, floppy. As for your observations about the likelihood of floppy-stored data being intact, my own experience has been the opposite. A few years ago I transferred about a hundred 5.25″ Apple II floppies via serial cable to images on a PC, where I can now load them into an Apple II emulator. Aside from a few sadly copy-protected disks, they all transferred fine, and all of my data is intact. As in the case where a floppy written in one place was unreadable somewhere else, it’s a matter of using quality disk drives and keeping them calibrated. I recently fired up the old Apple II again to create a bunch of disks for an art installation at a college in the US and the only problem I had was that one of my floppy drives had failed. The disks were all fine. To the person who had problems with 1.44 MB floppies: I think you had a dud or mis-calibrated drive, as I never had any problems with those either.

  11. Ax25 says:

    I will archive floppies to tape if needed (just need more tapes).

  12. Paul Irish says:

    Anyone know a service that can help recover the data on a single density 3.5″ disk?

  13. Sneakyness says:

    You’re a hero!

  14. lizardb0y says:

    If you’re in New Zealand you can get in touch with vintage computing enthusiasts through the NZ Vintage Computer forums at Between the members of this forum we have most of the computers popular in this region and many that weren’t. If you have data on floppies you’d like to rescue, get in touch and we may be able to help.

  15. Chris M says:

    I’II agree with others and say 3.5″ floppies are worse then the 5.25″ in terms of archiving, particularly HD. 1.44MB floppies just “go bad” for no good reason, same goes for DD disks, but not quite as often. All the 25yo 5.25″ disks I have read fine (and are backed up).

    It has to do with data density, there is no room for error in smaller formats. The same rule applies to video tape, its why 30 year old 1/2″ format tapes (VHS, Betamax, etc.) have held up so well, while MiniDV tapes (~1/4″ tape) are known to have playback problems in as little as 5 years.

  16. Rich says:

    Shit – what do I do with the box of 8″ floppies?

  17. In my basement I have tons of floppies that were my fathers. I really have no clue what he had on them. I remember him showing me a few games when I was little. But now I just have 3 broken C64 disk drives so I can’t even read them.

  18. Info-Seeker says:

    Most of my Commodore 64/128 5.25s still work pretty well, surprisingly. The Amiga 720k 3.5s have actually gone bad much quicker; which I attribute to track width and density. Even so, my SSDD, which means something totally different to today’s youth, are still rocking my 1571 to this day…

    Winter Games Anyone?

    Long Live Commodore!

  19. Last summer I archived 1000+ Commodore disks myself. Used a Commodore 128 in 64 mode a 64Nic+ and Warpcopy over Ethernet. I did my part. 🙂

  20. Myrcurial says:

    I was going through and sorting my “dead media” boxes a couple of weekends ago – I have a bunch of Osborne 1 5-1/4s, some unknown S-100 bus system 8″, QIC40s, Syquest 44 and 135, Zip 100, and a metric assload of 1.44s — time to fire up some old systems and get to copying.

    Still have to figure out what to do with multi-image slide shows, 3/4″ U-Matic(SP), 1″ C-wind and some other weird-ass video formats — heck, there’s a PCM on VHS set of tapes in there…

    Sigh. There are so many things that I wish now I’d been more careful about pulling forward onto new media sooner.

  21. Shadyman says:

    I have also had much better luck archiving 5.25″ floppies than 3.5″ floppies.

    I’d imagine it has to do with data density: any physical or magnetic defect that surfaces would affect many more bits on a high-density, small disk than on a lower density, larger disk.

  22. I also had trouble with 3.5″ 1.44MB floppies (we call them “stiffies” here in South Africa) and eventually concluded that they were inherently unreliable. But then, some time after it started being too late anyway, I read something about how preformatted disks get formatted with a larger current on the write heads of whatever magic preformat-machine the vendors use than what your floppy drive is capable of, so what ends up happening is that when you formatted a floppy, you weren’t able to quite erase the previous formatting, and that then manifests as an unreliable disk. From then on the floppy is effectively hosed, and no amount of formatting in consumer-grade equipment will do. [citation needed], because I can’t easily find anything relating to this theory. If only I had known then to leave the floppies alone instead of (re-)formatting them.

  23. Adrian says:

    Uh oh, they sit there, in the “must get around to it one day” boxes on the shelf. Half a dozen 8″ floppies from an old Intel development system, 50-100 5.25″ with 6809 Flex, CP-M and god knows what, and a couple of hundred 3.5″ HD in amiga and MS-DOS format. What is on them, I’ll probably never know. Moving house soon, maybe I’ll finally have some room to get them out, try to read the 3.5s then turf the lot. Anyone know how you can get hold of an 8″ drive with a USB connection anywhere in Melbourne?

  24. Hose says:

    I remember the day several years ago when I got hold of a USB floppy drive and went through all of my old floppies that survived my college and post-college years to salvage any data that might have been salvagable. The resulting depression in the revelation that there was so little there that I still considered worth saving eats at my soul to this very day and is quite a metaphor for how I feel about my life.

  25. Total coincidence: I was sitting around earlier thinking “I wonder where I can find copies of the Apple ][ series ‘Microzine’ that I remember from gradeschool.” Every year or so I spend some time trying to find the original floppies in someone’s collection, but now I’m afraid that if they haven’t been preserved by digitization, I may never find them. 🙁

  26. Senji says:

    Just to add an addendum, it is nearly too late for CD-Rs of about a decade old. Earlier ones are more reliable, more recent ones won’t have deteriorated yet..

  27. Jeremy says:

    What sort of life expectancy can be expected from floppies?

  28. Six says:

    I’m working my way through a collection of 10,000 or so C64 5.25 floppies. It’s slow going, but most of them that have been stored in a responsible fashion are imaging pretty well. I’ve got a load of 8″ floppies as well, but no idea how to archive them.

  29. Steven O'Donnell says:

    What about retrieving data from cassettes ? I know I still have some old Amstrad games kicking around that need a rebirth.

  30. Larry Grimes says:

    Some of us remember eight inch floppies!

  31. f00f_bug says:

    I data shifted all my stuff out of floppies and onto other media nearly a decade ago, so it’s coming as a bit of a shock that some people out there still have them around.

    The only floppies I have right now are demo disks from when there were still paper magazines and they came to you through your mailbox ou local newsstand, rather than through the magical interwebs in the sky.

  32. Still have floppies says:

    I think I very slightly fell in love with you. Can’t read through the article through tears of pain and sadness. I know where you’re coming from tho.

    Lots Of Love


  33. Alfetta159 says:

    This is news? 5 1/4s were dead ten years ago.

  34. SportPuppy says:

    I remember buying single-sided 5.25’s and using a hole punch to turn them into double-sided disks. Ah the good old days!

  35. Mark A. says:

    I can still remember using tape before upgrading to a 5.25″ floppy and then the 3.5″ ones.
    I haven’t used *TAPE, *DFS or *ADFS for a few years now,
    but still have the dobble sided 5.25″ and 3.5″ disc drives.

    I skipped the 8″ ones.

  36. Rune says:

    I share the experience that when 3.5″ disks became cheap they beacme also very unreliable. I had a 5-1/4″ drive in my Amiga writing 880k on dd disks with much less problems and cheaper. On the C64 I had a SFD1001 which wrote 1MB on DD disks (double sided GCR format), also no problems. 5-1/4 disks may turn with too much resistance when pressed flat. Widening the edges by pulling them over the desk edge or cutting them off on three sides may help.
    Last vacation just found the drive again, I think I should plan a data transfer session ot get all as on CDs and USB sticks etc. to run on emulators.
    My worst fear is that someone told me that the surface of a disk can become a sticky mass damaging the disk drive.

  37. SomeGuy says:

    Um, floppies were NEVER reliable. People saved to duplicate floppies all the time. No one expected them to be reliable.

  38. dpocius says:

    I guess I should get around to archiving those old wire recordings…

  39. ECD says:

    @Hose, freakin hilarious! So true!

    I’d also like to second Senji’s comment regarding CD-Rs. I’ve had several of greater that eight years of age go bad. I’m speculating it’s due to oxidation of the metal layer.

  40. Ron Bigus says:

    Well if it’s to late for 5 1/4 then I guess I have no hope for my 8″ disks (they are really floppy) from my old IBC theos

  41. Flack says:

    Coincidently, last week I found a bunch of disks belonging to a local Commodore 64 users’s group that existed in the 1980s. I archived all the disks and even scanned pictures of them on my flat bed scanner. I’ve been talking with one of the guys from GameBase who said some of the files on these disks aren’t in GameBase yet, so that’s pretty awesome. You can download the images from my website (or just look at the pictures):

  42. RetroFloppy says:

    It’s not too late! 5-1/4″ disks are surprisingly resilient. As others have mentioned, 3-1/2″ are less so… but there’s still hope. I can help.

  43. phuzz says:

    Ahh right, then next time I go back to my folks place, I need to pull out my Amiga, and the boxes of 3.5″ disks and start working out how to duplicate them.

  44. Tlhogi says:

    It saddens me that floppy disk are being discussed in the year 2011.

  45. Nate says:

    I designed a product that reads Commodore floppies (including copy-protected ones) over USB. Works on Windows, Mac, and Linux if you have a 1541/1571/1581 drive (see link at my name above). It’s $35 USD currently.

    BTW, I don’t make any money from this device. Jim Brain is responsible for manufacturing and sales support. It’s just a hobby project in hopes of saving as much data as possible. You archive websites, I build tools to archive varied media formats.

  46. Kieron Wilkinson says:

    I feel your pain. As parts of an effort that has images many thousands of disks for various platforms, I really know what you are talking about. Actually, we worked with the Internet Archive in the past too, but that joint effort (CLASP) sadly it didn’t progress, mainly because of legal concerns. Also, not only do you have a problem with data integrity, but there is also a big problem with data authenticity (modified disks – virus, hiscores, user damage).

    If you are starting an effort to do this, and there was just one piece of advice I could give you, it is this: Do a low-level sampling of the disks when imaging them (accurate flux transition sampling). You loose a vast amount of information if you do simple sector dumps, and there is no way you can recover information such as knowing if the disk has been modified by more than one machine without it. You also have a much better chance of recovering disks that are no longer readable in the normal way. If a disk is very important, you also have the chance to do some analysis of the data for recovery. You effectively compensate for data rot in a way that information may be more likely recoverable.

    Now, I’ll state my bias here. I am one of the people who work on KryoFlux (, and I am pretty confident that this device is the best thing out there for taking low level images of disks. We have many national libraries that use it that feel the same way. But whatever you use, please just make sure it is flux transition based (at a suitably precise sampling rate), and that it does good data verification.

    Please insist on this. Future generations will thank you for it!

    Just one comment on here about 1.44Mb disks. It’s actually no so much the disks that are a fault, but the drives. The reason you would write a disk on one machine, and couldn’t read it on another is that many companies didn’t really care about aligning the drives properly around that time, and so I think 1.44Mb disks get a slightly worse reputation than they perhaps deserve. Having said that, it is certainly true that the increased data density contributes to reading problems.

  47. Lancaster says:

    It always used to puzzle me that there wasn’t more of a push for archival efforts among retrocomputing enthusiasts. In the forums I frequented, I’d see a lot of fetishism for hardware and tinkering – but precious little for software, let alone its preservation. Then I realized that, at the most superficial (and therefore most widespread) level, retrocomputing consists of admiring the visual design of an old piece of hardware, enjoying a momentary wave of nostalgia, maybe poking around for a bit, and then forgetting about the whole thing until the next time it crosses their mind. Some old micro collecting dust in a back room.

    And in the distant future, most of that physicality will be gone. Old mainframes and minicomputers now live on almost entirely through emulation. The only thing that micros and their media have going for them is that they’re smaller, easier to store and transport and repair. But against time’s inevitable march, I don’t think that’s much of a bulwark. At some point, Commodore 64s and Apple IIs and TRS-80s will only be experienced through emulators. That won’t happen in our lifetimes, but it WILL happen, and the library of available software will be whatever we managed to capture off floppies in the small window we had.

    The Apple II is my particular obsession, and I’ve imaged hundreds of floppies and uploaded them to online archives, trying to give them whatever permanence the Internet and its successors will offer. I’m immensely gratified to see that some of them have shown up in BitTorrent collections. When necessary, I work with those who have skills in cracking software to get the disks into an imageable state, and the ridiculous vagaries of copyright don’t factor in at all.

    What’s dismaying is going to eBay and seeing absurdly marked-up boxed copies of software that will remain unsold and probably be eventually thrown away. Many are already imaged, but some aren’t, and if I was independently wealthy, I’d buy up every last one.

  48. Decius says:

    That study saddens me as well. To go through all of the trouble to get the data off the disk, and then archive it in an inaccessible manner.

    It’s like going through a flooded library, carefully preserving each page of every book, and then categorizing each page separately sorted. Somewhere in the collection they made is a disk 2 of 3. Good luck finding it.

  49. nimbus says:

    to Phuzz– there are a couple of ways of making disc images of old Amiga (or other) floppies – this is one of them: