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Floppy Disks: It’s Too Late (textfiles.com)
181 points by aw3c2 on July 12, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 79 comments

Some years ago, I went through a tedious process of moving all the data I had on my mid-80s Compaq Deskpro Portable to a slightly-less-antique IBM AT, using 5.25 inch floppies. Then I migrated the data from my AT to a still-newer PC using 3.5 inch floppies. From there it was a simple matter of burning the data onto a CD to migrate to my then-current PC - which, in turn, I backed up and copied over to my now-current PC when I replaced it.

The upshot is that I still have all the files I created a quarter of a century ago.

I did the same with my Amigas about 5 years ago, which was more complicated than your process (I had to make a cable and buy a USB-to-RS232 adapter since modern PCs don't have serial ports). A few of the floppies were unreadable, particularly the ones where I'd used one of the non-standard formats that packed more data onto the disk and performed faster, but I was mostly able to pull everything off, and the hard disks were fine. I have a directory on my Linux box of the old Amiga stuff, and can play the mods I wrote, and poke around at some of the stuff I wrote, including the first book I ever wrote (which was an interactive Jazz improvisation course in AmigaText), and such.

Honestly, though, other than the music, I didn't find much worth keeping. Pirated games, 8-bit porn, etc. Though, it did remind me of the name of my favorite old synthesis tool (RGS), so I was able to look it up and do some research on modern alternatives...which it turns out there aren't really any, unfortunately. I'd carried on a conversation with the developer when he announced no further development, and wish I still had the notes, as he'd included quite a bit of technical details about the way it works (though it's mostly obvious now that I'm more knowledgeable; FFT over time for the generation of images, adding sine waves for the other direction). But, I've never gotten around to trying to reproduce it.

Interestingly, those ancient machines (a 2000 and 3000, both with hard disk controllers and hard disks; an AD516 sound card; and some other formerly very expensive hardware), and a pile of random Amiga junk and magazines, sold for $300. Given that PC stuff from that era would bring nothing, I'd say the resale value of Amigas has held up shockingly well. Collector value, I suppose. Even weirder, I guess, I bought a Commodore 64 after getting rid of the Amigas.

I have probably hundreds of DeluxePaint animations from the mid-90s distributed across a handful of floppy disks and a couple of A1200 hard drives (from when I wanted to be a video game artist, of course!). I've wondered before how I might ever go about recovering them, if indeed they are recoverable. Any instructions you'd recommend?

I tried several options, and finally settled on the Amiga Forever bundle, which includes software for transferring things which actually worked. It's been years, now, and I don't remember all the details...I just remember hacking together a cable, buying a USB-to-RS232 adapter on ebay, being frustrated for a week or so trying various bits and pieces from source, and then buying Amiga Forever, and things just magically came together and started working.

It wasn't as easy as I'd hoped it would be, and it wasn't as easy as it would have been had I done it when I first moved to PC. Since transfer utilities and hardware were commonplace back then.

For floppy disks:


Unfortunately a lot of the solutions for Amiga <-> PC conversion no longer work on modern PCs (i.e requiring old versions of windows, isa slots, etc).

The hard drive is easy, you can just plug it into your PC and mount it under linux (using the affs filesystem). If your a windows users I think WinUAE might be able to mount it but I don't know.

Hard drives on the Amiga were usually SCSI. Specifically, the very old SCSI interface, which has never been widely available in PCI cards.

This was my problem with the "just plug it into your PC" process. So, I ended up needing to connect the machines via serial and transferring the the Amiga Forever tool.

But, I guess if you had IDE disks, that'd be easier...though the old IDE standard plugs are also dinosaurs at this point. Not as hard to find as old school SCSI, but still not certain to be available. I happened to have a vast hardware closet from running a hardware business for several years...but even that was insufficient.


A600, A1200 and A4000 all had internal IDE interfaces. The A3000 had a SCSI interface. All other Amiga models had to use add-on HDD interfaces, which started SCSI because that was the dominant platform and shifted more to IDE over time.

So, I'm not sure I'd agree that SCSI was more popular on Amigas over time.

Fun times. When I was in high school, a friend of mine ran a BBS from his Commodore 128.

Yep; same here. I'm 33 now, and I'm unreasonably proud to say that I still have essentially every file I ever created, going back to hundreds of Bank Street Writer and KoalaPaint files created on my Commodore 64 in the mid-1980s.

You're just ahead of your time. Fortunately, with the way computing seems to be heading, one day we all will be able to say we still have every file (document, image, etc) we ever created.

Oh, I think it remains to be seen whether cloud computing will make the problem better or worse. If all of our data is eventually consolidated with a few very large companies who do a good job of preserving it and keeping it accessible to us, then that may be an improvement.

But keep in mind that these companies are not in the archival business. Fresh data is a lot more valuable to them than old stuff. Yes, Google scans old books and whatnot but that's a tiny amount of data compared to everyone's digital junk heap that they accumulate over a lifetime.

If I consider everything I've ever written on the internet to be my "files" then I've already lost a great deal of it just because I can't keep track of where it all is, let alone whether it's still online at all.

He might have meant the cheapness of storage and I sure hope he did. I could have kept incremental backups of all my digital creations in the last 20 years and it would not be 1 terabyte.

I don't know. Modern people also create a lot more files than back in the floppy days. Many files are created to be consumed over short period of time, and probably discarded when they become inconvenient.

All I need is a Volkswriter emulator and I can re-read those senior public and early high school essays again. :)

I migrated my Apple ][ disks in the early 90's. There weren't any migration utilities available (or I just didn't know which BBS to call, maybe) so I had to write my own disk-reader-to-serial on the Apple side and the appropriate conversion routines on the PC side. Fun times.

A couple of years ago I was moving and decided to do something with the shoeboxes full of 5.25" and 3.5" disks I had sitting in my attic.

I couldn't bear just to pitch them so feeling nostalgic I resurrected an old PC (also in the attic) with a 3.5" drive and I was able to read about 50% of them including one that had my Programming Languages class assignments from 1990 (a Lisp REPL with macros written in Pascal and a pretty printer for Modula-2 code). The other disks I cared about where unreadable even after using the freezer trick on them.

Where are they now? The working ones are in a shoebox in my attic in my new house. I'll probably check on them again in 10 years.

btw, if you need a copy of Turbo Pascal 3.0 just let me know...

You can get Turbo Pascal 5.5 off Embarcadero's (formerly Borland's) website: http://edn.embarcadero.com/article/20803

Of course, Free Pascal is a better modern alternative.

As someone who periodically goes through their archives and moves them to newer media, I found it amusing that my college archives (which were originally on a 1600BPI mag tape) fit on a zip disk, then over the next 5 years everything fit on a CD, then a DVD, then a dual layer DVD, then a BluRay disk.

We used to joke that you could send a uuencoded and encrypted RAR archive out to alt.binaries and then you would be able to recover your data forever. Weird how prophetic that seems to me now.

There are places like NASA who have called on the Computer History Museum for help in getting data off 7-bit magnetic tape.

And as others have pointed out if you save the data but can't read it because the application is toast (Deluxe Paint files anyone?) you have bigger issues. Then you find yourself with an emulator so that you can boot CP/M so you can run Peachtree Accounting so you can read the data from your first lemonade stand.

Its a very deep rabbit hole archiving all that stuff.

If you had a Commodore Amiga I'd recommend you have a look at the following list of Amiga games incase you have one that hasn't yet been saved for history:


Back in High School I wanted to get a bit of IS experience, so I volunteered in the IS dept of a nearby hospital. Turned out, my job was to format all 10-20K of the old Windows95 installation floppies they had sitting around (this was 2000-2001).

At first I almost just left. But the guys in the IS dept were actually really nice and let me use the spare parts they had just sitting around. I ended up making a setup with 3 screens, 3 towers and each tower with 4 floppy drives. Plus an extra tower & screen to browse the internet while I would swap disks in and out of the other three.

My hidden back corner behind all the ancient, noisy tape drive towers (it was a Hospital... need to be HIPPA compliant and anal about recouds) became the cool place to hang out and I ended up learning a mountain of information from those guys/gals.

One thing about those old windows 95 floppies is that they have surprisingly better quality than other floppies. I had to use some floppies in 2001, and had massive failure rates with newly bought ones, and near-zero with rewritten Windows 95 installation disks.

Same for me. I still use floppies with some of my synths (D-20, MV-30 -- no alternative, really), and the newest floppies (post 2000) are of terrible quality, while the old floppies (up to 23 years old) work perfectly and never failed me.

Hopefully, they weren't low density floppies that they made you punch holes in and reformat as high density.

My Windows 95 installation floppies were high density floppies with a special disk format that gave them 1.6MB instead of 1.44MB.

Yea, it was called DMF, also used for Office 4.2 floppies for example.

I did this all the time when I was 13, 14 years old.

They weren't, because they were Windows 95 installation floppies.

It's weird. I was /there/ in 1995 and I have trouble even remembering Windows 95 came on floppies. I feel old.

I had a CD-ROM by then, so I don't know what the floppy installs looked like.

But you know that Windows 95 was released in 1995.

So what is your point? I used low density disks in '94, so it's not a stretch to imagine they were around in '95.

When we released memcached 1.4.0, we gave out the source on floppy disks at OSCON. The majority didn't get it. "I don't even have anything that can read this" was a common response. It was surreal how many people thought we were serious about using floppy disks as a medium for distributing software in the late 2,000s.

I still have a box of these on my desk.

So... why did you distribute the source on floppies?

I could understand it if you had a digital archiving point to make, but memcached? I really don't see it.

Maybe to emphasize how small memcached is?

I wouldn't consider 1.44 bzip2ed source very small though.

But Elephant Memory Systems NEVER FORGETS -http://imgur.com/a/jtlhW :-)

Images from http://home.comcast.net/~kevin_d_clark/ems/

I just found one of those bright yellow Elephant Memory Systems t-shirts on eBay and ordered it, to replace the one I had years ago. At least I never forgot!

I don't know why he doesn't just say it directly, but all media has an expiration date. It was only intended to last so long (because any longer was too expensive) and floppies are not all past their expiration dates.

This is a good reminder that 'backups' doesn't mean 'put it on a disk and forget it'. You have to maintain them.

The point of the post wasn't to talk about the general aspects of media, but to specifically and directly make a call to action for a subset of all media that I and a team of volunteers can rescue data from.

all media has an expiration date

Yeah, but that's a pretty recent view. I mean, we're still digging up clay cuneiform tablets faster than we can translate them all...

Baked clay tablets, like stone inscriptions, are exceptional. The records of the past are largely gone.

Unbaked clay tablets tend to simply disintegrate. Those at Knossos and Ninevah were baked by fires that destroyed the buildings in which they were housed. Mycenean tablets appear to have been reused each year, so the 'expiration date' in that case was man-made rather than imposed by the material.

Papyri have also survived more by good fortune than by design, being preserved in tombs and rubbish heaps. They lay undisturbed in an environment where the temperature and moisture content of the air remained stable over time, in a range conducive to the survival of the material.

Interestingly the original Unix source was recovered from paper rather than tape.

So how should I try to recover data from my floppies without sending them to this polite gentleman? Do 5 dd images and do a bit-for-bit comparison? I would imagine that there are already utilities out there to do this (though probably with a focus on hard drives). It will also be interesting to find file formats that have long since died and require the original software running in a VM to read.

This reminds me, I need to ping the pbForth [0] author to see if he has an old version of his software. I would like to see the first code that I ever wrote - a line following Mindstorms robot programmed during a summer computer camp! That camp was a large part of why I'm getting my PhD in CompE today.

[0]: http://tldp.org/HOWTO/Lego/pbforth.html

Luckily that’s mostly no more a problem if your data is already on modern storage media. HDDs are cheap, making backups is easy and slowly but surly that notion that backups are necessary is entering the collective consciousness.

Data now just moves from HDD to HDD and is usually (or should at least be) on at least two HDDs (or one HDD and one SSD) at once, one of which is replaced as it breaks.

I’m not terribly worried about the expiration date of HDDs, it doesn’t really matter that they are only the temporary home of your data for a few years.

One interesting problem where the short lifetime of HDDs comes into play is how you should pass something on, for example to your kids or grandkids. It’s not their data, they probably don’t care enough (or don’t pay enough attention) to make sure to always migrate it to current storage media. Sure, they might enjoy looking at old photos and videos but how often will they do that? Every five years? Every decade?

Just stowing away a HDD in the attic is probably not a great idea. Using contemporary storage media that might survive longer is also questionable. Will it be easily possible to read CDs and DVDs in forty years?

I’m actually more worried about that than about file formats. I’m willing to bet that it will be possible to open up JPEGs with PCs (whatever they may be) in forty years. Even by default, even without getting any extra software. TIF is now 25 years old, it was never really widely used (at least compared to JPEG) but it’s still easy to open up TIF files. (Forget opening the raw files from your DSLR, though.)

Regarding passing stuff on, I imagine it will go like this, just as it always has done:

1. Leave important data to children in your will.

2. Die.

3. For you, there is no step 3 :)

In the long run, if your data is valuable to your descendants, they will be sure to take good care of it.

On the other hand, if your data is valuable only to you, consider what just happened in step 2...

I've got a box packed up here that I'm shipping to Jason rather soon of C64 games and late 80's and early 90's video game manuals.

I'm keeping my copy of Zork for the C64 (not like he needs another copy of it to backup), but the rest I'll send to him.

I hate to say it, but I found some OCD-inspired complete torrents of C64 stuff, had a good portion of the various pirate groups releases of each thing, including their awesome intro demo graphics.

Yes, and I've got many of those, but they are, by their nature, the commercial products, not the individual bufferings of user groups, BBSes that lasted a short time, and so on.

oh hello jason!!! you also don't get thanked enough for your historical preservation efforts, so thank you, thank you, thank you!!

Jason, you rock, and your movies are awesome! When (if?) you are going to make your 6502 documentation, let me know if you need a ticket to Europe (hoping the impact on Europe is going to make it into the movie?! pretty please?!).

Thank you so much!

Back before torrents and Internet my main interest in pirating software was intros, .nfo files, bbs adverts, and the rest of the ephemera rather than the actual software.

What's about CD-Rs? 10 years? I know it depends on the quality of the disc.

In college a photography professor once mentioned that he used gold plated CD-Rs or something like that because they would last longer.

A few months ago, I went to dig up some of my early music-making efforts (burned to CD-R in 1999), only to find out they were unreadable. It turns out at least 10% of my "old CD pile" is already dead or damaged. The ones with stick-on labels are especially difficult to read.

That's way before cheap bulk CD-Rs and fast (and equally cheap) 16x burners appeared though.

I had some home burned CDs that where 6 or so years old and had hole in them.

I have a bunch of late-20th century CD-Rs; and actually the cheapest ones are those that still work; all the gold-plated, branded CD-Rs (Kodak, etc) are mostly unreadable.

I'd imagine it also depends on how you store them and what climate you live in.

This presents a unique opportunity. So current storage tech lasts about 10 years or so, give or take. I think there will be a massive migration of data and if you can prove your media lasts say 50 years, people will be quite excited to embrace your standard. As an aside, I have a massive Commodore 5 1/4" disk drive reader at my parents house. Found it in a goodwill. Thing weighs like 15lbs. Anyone know of drivers I can download to make it work on a modern PC?

ZoomFloppy: USB -> Commodore 1541/1571/1581 drive adapter


I designed it. Board and all software is open-source.

Scroll down to the software section on:


What happens to the data that is archived? Are they available to download?

I see a http://cd.textfiles.com but no floppies.textfiles.com

Don't forget about the Iomega Zip Drive.


Zip drive? Luxury. Oh what I had to go through to pull a few QuarkXpress documents off of a SyQuest drive for my brother! "SCUD: The Whole Shebang" wouldn't have been complete without it!

Had to dig up an old Performa-era Mac that had the SCSI-1 (non-Centronics style) connector that the SyQuest drive had. The drive was borrowed in friend-of-a-friend style. And then... how to get the files off of that Mac!? Ethernet/AppleTalk issues on an 80's Mac in a 21st-century networking environment wasn't trivial.

I don't think I could remember how to do it again if I had to.

Which version? I'm fairly certain my parents owned at least two, and I believe we had three different readers at work.

I actually got rid of a bunch of 3.5" floppies I had in the back room of my house this weekend. Despite feeling pretty silly about it, I still took the time to make sure to actually tear them up rather than just dump them in the trash. Who knows what 1.44MB of data could do from my 1997 MS Money file.

Importance of old files is overrated. Old files have some value, but not too much.

It's important to forget old stuff to free our attention for new things that are often more valuable.

Cool - I saw that DISKDRV car driving around Seattle last Saturday, I think. In fact, it wasn't far from the Ikea where picture was probably taken.

It would be easier to register floppydump.org and have users upload their disk contents in a zip.

I think the point is that users no longer have the capability to extract data from a floppy, even if that data is easily readable. I certainly don't have a 3.5 drive, much less a 5.25, and who knows if the floppies at my parents' house are still readable.

I have an old 8" floppy disk with some of my old IBM Series/1 code on it. Needless to say it is staying on it.

Get them on a Jaz cartridge. Quickly.

ditto or die.


Now get off my lawn.

I got two words for you, sugar... Zip disk.

I guess people 'round here don't enjoy Zoolander. A shame.

IMHO: It's more that "people 'round here" don't care for comments that are little more than references.

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