Digital Archaelogy

I’ve got a bunch of five-and-a-quarter floppies from the eighties that I’ve been hanging on to. Even if I could muster up an old drive, with a mobo with an interface and a cable, what are the chances that they’re still readable? I hate to throw potential data (and personal history) away. I’d love to be able to hoover them up on a hard drive.

28 thoughts on “Digital Archaelogy”

  1. Assuming reasonable storage conditions (not too much heat or damp, and low or no exposure to serious magnetic fields) I’d say the odds are fairly good, so long as the underlying format is still supported.

    PC-DOS disks (or MS-DOS) would be easy to recover; CP/M, not as much but still possible.

    Check around for a “Computer Museum” or hardcore computer hobbyist group in your area.

    Unfortunately, I seem to have managed to discard the moldering wreckage of the last system *I* had that read the things. (Other than the Apple ][ in what is now my brother’s house back in Pittsburgh.)

  2. Google(usb floppy drive 5.25) found some candidates. will transfer any number of 5.25″ floppies to a CD, for a fee. (I don’t know them; they just came up as a California company when I Googled.)

    It’s easier to find USB connected 3.5″ drives — I wanted to do that when my machine with 3.5″ drives died, and all my more recent ones had none. But, replacing the fan resurrected the system long enough to archive my data better…

  3. I found some 3.5″ floppies a few months ago that date as far back as 1990, and they appeared to more or less work. (They had a bunch of zip files on them, and I copied them all to hard drive and opened a few and opened the files in them.)

  4. “I’ve got a bunch of five-and-a-quarter floppies from the eighties that I’ve been hanging on to.”

    I won’t even try to describe the image that conjured up when I first read it…

  5. Are they PC or Apple II/Commodore/something else?

    Retrofloppy these people claim to be able to copy files out. No experience with them, but $7 to just see if there’s anything worth bothering with recoverable doesn’t sound bad.

    The Apple II sites have links leading to USB interfaces for 5.25 mechanisms too.

    I just happy I have no Hollerith cards.

  6. I also have some ’80s 5.25 IBM diskettes, both 360k DS and 1.2mb. Someone gave me a late-’90s Compaq with a high-capacity 5.25 drive. When I tried it I found that it wouldn’t read any of my diskettes, even though I had no problem using 1.2 drives to read 360s back in the day. There seem to have been several 5.25 standards, they were not all compatible, and it looks like the standards or the manufacturing tolerances or both changed over time. Or maybe all of my diskettes are corrupt, but that seems unlikely.

    Retrofloppy looks interesting, but for what it would cost I might be better off buying some old computers and trying my luck.

    Please let us know if you find a good solution.

  7. I did the same with a bunch of 3.5″ floppies a couple years ago, and about 10-15% of them had unrecoverable errors. Still have some 5 1/4″ disks sitting around…

  8. “Or maybe all of my diskettes are corrupt, but that seems unlikely.”

    Not necessarily. Magnetic storage is fundamentally a meta-stable technology; the opposing magnetic poles in the microscopic medium domains want to fly apart given a small energy nudge. Random phonons, photons, and energetic particles can cause bit flips over time. The problem grows even more acute at higher storage densities. Modern disks especially are on the hairy edge — don’t trust them for archival storage.

  9. I’ll never forget watching a friend of mine hook up a 6GB notebook PATA harddrive to an old Apple IIE. He need a breadboard and chips off some old MBs to build the interface, and he also had to code the device drivers. It worked. 6GB for an Apple II line of computers would probably hold nearly every software program written for that platform.

  10. I not only have a bunch of old 5.25″ and 3.5″ disks, I have a 5.25″ drive but no way to connect it to my current computer. Does anyone know of a USB drive case that I can buy reasonably cheap to explore what might be on those old disks? I’m particularily interested in recovering some old computer code that I wrote back in the late 1980s for nostalgia reasons.

  11. I’ve got a couple of nine track tape reels, still.

    But the bigger problem is not if the media is readable, but do you still have the programs that can read them? Over the years I’ve moved files from floppy to Syquest cartridge to CD-ROM, but the word processing and graphics formats can’ be decoded anymore.

  12. I have sort of the same problem, except I have at least one drive that should still work, and computers old enough to run them. Just haven’t done anything to retrieve everything yet. The more challenging matter would be to read the 5.25″ floppies that were, I believe, single sided single density. when they were sold in variants up to what became the norm – DS/DD, 1.2 MB capacity. I have a bunch of those with stuff I wrote on a Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer 2 and then a Color Computer 3. Considering the latter would not run the software I’d used on the former, and I could not open any of the files I’d created one almost the same machine, I can only imagine how hard it would be now, if I still had them. Which I did, until a couple years ago.

  13. There is (used to be?) a company in Simi Valley, CA that makes software that will translate tape formats to useful formats. It looks like they still may be around:

    You’ll have to find a suitable tape drive though.

    When we moved out of California I filled a small dumpster up with 5 1/4 and 3.5″ floppies. With some 8″ single sided, hard sectored CP/M disks on the top for dressing, and JAZ/Zip carts on the side. With USB sticks being a buck or two it’s a far easier way to transport data than even burning DVD’s.

  14. I don’t have that problem — all my important archive data is moved over on the newest format the moment I start to use it. I have files that have been copied from 5.25″ to 3.5″ to hard drive to CD to DVD, etc.

    Then again it’s all text and images, not code. I’ve never written code worth keeping, beyond the HTML/CSS for my Web site.

    That said, I’d love to get my hands on a bunch of 5.25″ floppies. Strips of cut-apart disk makes great control surface hinges for my radio-control planes. >:)

  15. A good friend of mine is a well-known SF author. He has several “manuscripts” (original working text files) from thrity years ago that he’d like to retrieve, just for nostalgia’s sake. Unfortunately, he did his word processing on a Heathkit LSI-11, which used eight-inch floppies, and he no longer has that machine. Neither, apparently, does anyone else …

    (It’s not a big deal for him, and he doesn’t think it’s worth ithe effort to seek out a computer museum.)

  16. I’d say the chances are pretty low, but not zero. Floppies aren’t exactly reliable; hell, they weren’t reliable when they were NEW, let alone after 20-plus years of gathering dust and possibly mold.

    (And of course, my thoughts on such things are that any “personal data” you haven’t needed in 20 years you’re never, ever going to need.

    That holds true for me, at least; I have various data from the early 90s that is maintained only out of automatic habit from it living in a backed up Documents directory. I’ve never looked at it and never will, and would never even notice if it was gone or corrupt.)

  17. That holds true for me, at least; I have various data from the early 90s that is maintained only out of automatic habit from it living in a backed up Documents directory.

    A friend of mine used to copy the contents of his old PC’s hard disk into c:\old_pc every time he bought a new one, thus maintaining a nested collection of old filesystems. The deeper levels contain fascinating stuff like old programming assignments…

  18. This reminds me of an Asimov prediction, something to the effect that we would have better info on the Romans than any government today because they used media that lasts while we use media that changes with every product cycle. I think Dvorac made a similar comment.

  19. There’s all kinds of used computer shops here in Dallas. I would think it’d be not too terribly difficult to find one that has some 5.25″ drives they’d be willing to sell. The situation shouldn’t be too different in California.

  20. I agree with Sigivald. 5.25″ floppies were flaky even when they were new. Back in the day when you had to flip 7 disks in and out of the drive just to get a program to load it was easy to just leave them stacked up out in the open and out of their sleeves. There were a few times I remember having a disk that was just in the drive working no problem a bit earlier suddenly up and stop working in the middle of running the program. I still have the hole punch machine that will convert a read-only 5.25″ floppy to a writable floppy. Someone gave me a big sack of 5.25″ floppies that had some kind of useless software demo on them. I thought I could use them because I had the hole punch and make them writable. Only about 1 in every 3-5 disks actually worked though. They were all still in their sleeves even.

    I tell my customers that when there disk is full, instead of buying a bigger capacity drive to just go through and do some spring cleaning and see what you can do without. If the last modified date is over a few years ago then your probably not going to miss it. Archive it onto a disc and put it up on a shelf. If after a few more years the disc is collecting dust and hasn’t moved then you can trash it.

    Of course murphy’s law dictates that the moment you do trash something old will invariably bring about a reason to suddenly need/want it back again. So, even I admit that I have a hard time throwing old crap away. I still have a 486DX4 100Mhz mobo with a whopping 8 megs of 30-pin memory sitting in a box still. I was tearing it up with that ground pounding 25mhz front side bus. I also have a couple of trident 1meg VGA video adapters. A 24kbps modem and a sound blaster 8-bit sound card. If I recall correctly computers back in that day would often come with both a 3.5″ and a 5.25″ floppy drives and they both plugged into the same 34-pin disk drive ribbon cable. The 3.5″ connector was on the end and the 5.25″ connector was usually in the middle. The motherboard end of disk drive ribbon cable is still the same 34-pin standard today. If you find the drive and the combo ribbon cable it is possible it will plug into a current motherboard. Whether Windows will detect and recognize the drive is totally up to whether the BIOS will correctly poll the device though.

  21. If you have a 5.25 drive laying around, there is a widget that will let you hook it up via USB. Here is a review:

    Review of the FC5025 5.25″ Floppy to USB Adapter

    I bought mine in order to snort my Apple][ floppies to my hard drive, a project that I still haven’t had time for. I tested it with a PC floppy I had laying around and it worked OK.

  22. Generally, they degrade over time so you’d need to modify the operating system to ignore errors and just dump the raw data to file for analysis. Furthermore, the ability to read them will be affected by how frequently they were overwritten, since each write event doesnt actually make a magnetic dot in the same exact place as the last time (this is how the NSA is able to recover data that has been overwritten as many as 12 times off of hard disks).
    I’ve done this with older 9 track tape drives, and by reading the same file multiple times and comparing the results, you can eliminate most of the errors (of course if its an executable file that still may not be good enough, but that should be fine for data files, particularly more simple data files like txt or bmp.

  23. USB may be around for a while and with the small version like my cell phone recharger it can be anywhere. I have a wireless USB PS3 game controller I’m trying to make work with my windows PC.

    I also had a 9-track drive connected to a PC in 1983 so we could transfer data to and from a Univac. There was even a spray you could use on the tape to ‘see’ data.

    Yeah, I think I love USB.

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