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A Box Full of Floppies

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A Box Full of Floppies


The weather has warmed up here in Tucson so I started my Spring Cleaning early this year and unearthed from my garage a [Bankers Box] full of floppy diskettes.

IBM Centennial Shirt - Floppy Disk IBM invented the floppy disk back in 1971, and continued to make improvements and enhancements through the 1980s and 1990s. It will be one of the many inventions celebrated as part of IBM's Centennial (100-year) anniversary. Here is an example [T-shirt]

IBM needed a way to send out small updates and patches for microcode of devices out in client locations. IBM had drives that could write information, and sent out "read-only" drives to the customer locations to receive these updates. These were flexible plastic circles with a magnetic coating, and placed inside a square paper sleeve. Imagine a floppy disk the size of a piece of standard paper. The 8-inch floppy fit conveniently in a manila envelope, sendable by standard mail, and could hold nearly 80KB of data.

I've been using floppies for the past thirty years. Here's some of my fondest memories:

  • While still in high school, my friend Franz Kurath and I formed "Pearson Kurath Systems", a software development firm. We wrote computer programs to run on UNIX and Personal Computers for small businesses here in Tucson. Whenever we developed a clever piece of code, a subroutine or procedure, we would save it on a floppy disk and re-use it for our next project. We wrote in the BASIC language, and our databases were simple Comma-Separated-Variable (CSV) flat files.

    The 5.25-inch floppies we used could hold 360KB, and were flexible like the 8-inch models. Later versions of these 5.25-inch floppies would be able to hold as much as 1.2MB of data. We would convert single-sided floppies into double-sided ones by cutting out a notch in the outer sleeve. Covering up the notches would mark them as read-only.

    The 3.5-inch floppies were introduced with a hard plastic shell, with the selling point that you can slap on a mailing label and postage and send it "as is" without the need for a separate envelope. These new 3.5-inch floppies would carry "HD" for high density 720KB, and double-sided versions could hold 1.44MB of data. The term "diskette" was used to associate these new floppies with [hard-shelled tape cassettes]. Sliding a plastic tab would allow floppies to be marked "read-only". IBM has the patent on this clever invention.

  • Continuing our computer programming business in college, Franz and I took out a bank loan to buy our first Personal Computer, for over $5000 dollars USD. Until then, we had to use equipment belonging to each client. The banks we went to didn't understand why we needed a computer, and suggested we just track our expenses on traditional green-and-white ledger paper. Back then, peronsal computers were for balancing your checkbook, playing games and organizing your collection of cooking recipies. But for us, it was a production machine. A computer with both 5.25-inch and 3.5-inch drives could copy files from one format to another as needed. The boost in productivity paid for itself within months.

  • Apple launched its Macintosh computer in 1984, with a built-in 3.5-inch disk drive as standard equipment. Here is a YouTube video of an [astronaut ejecting a floppy disk] from an Apple computer in space.

  • In my senior year at the University of Arizona, my roommate Dave had borrowed my backpack to hold his lunch for a bike ride. He thought he had taken everything out, but forgot to remove my 3.5-inch floppy diskette containing files for my senior project. By the time he got back, the diskette was covered in banana pulp. I was able to rescue my data by cracking open the plastic outer shell, cleaning the flexible magnetic media in soapy water, placing it back into the plastic shell of a second diskette, and then copied the data off to a third diskette.

  • After graduating from college, Franz and I went our separate ways. I went to work for IBM, and Franz went to work for [Chiat/Day], the advertising agency famous for the 1984 Macintosh commercial. We still keep in touch through Facebook.

    At IBM, I was given a 3270 terminal to do my job, and would not be assigned a personal computer until years later. Once I had a personal computer at home and at work, the floppy diskette became my "briefcase". I could download a file or document at work, take it home, work on it til the wee hours of the morning, and then come back the next morning with the updated effort.

  • To help prepare me for client visits and public speaking at conferences, IBM loaned me out to local schools to teach. This included teaching Computer Science 101 at Pima Community College. When asked by a student whether to use "disc" or "disk", I wrote a big letter "C" on the left side of the chalkboard, and a big letter "K" on the right side. If it is round, I told the students while pointing at the letter "C", like a CD-ROM or DVD, use "disc". If it has corners, pointing to corners of the letter "K", like a floppy diskette or hard disk drive, use "disk".

  • On one of my business trips to visit a client, we discovered the client had experienced a problem that we had just recently fixed. Normally, this would have meant cutting a Program Trouble Fix (PTF) to a 3480 tape cartridge at an IBM facility, and send it to the client by mail. Unwilling to wait, I offered to download the PTF onto a floppy diskette on my laptop, upload it from a PC connected to their systems, and apply it there. This involved a bit of REXX programming to deal with the differences between ASCII and EBCDIC character sets, but it worked, and a few hours later they were able to confirm the fix worked.

  • In 1998, Apple would signal the begining of the end of the floppy disk era, announcing their latest "iMac" would not come with an internal built-in floppy drive. David Adams has a great article on this titled [The iMac and the Floppy Drive: A Conspiracy Theory]. You can get external floppy drives that connect via USB, so not having an internal drive is no longer a big deal.

  • While teaching a Top Gun class to a mix of software and hardware sales reps, one of the students asked what a "U" was. He had noticed "2U" and "3U" next to various products and wondered what that was referring to. The "U" represents the [standard unit of measure for height of IT equipment in standard racks]. To help them visualize, I explained that a 5.25-inch floppy disk was "3U" in size, and a 3.5-inch floppy diskette was "2U". Thus, a "U" is 1.75 inches, the thinnest dimension on a two-by-four piece of lumber. Servers that were only 1U tall would be referred to as "pizza boxes" for having similar dimensions.

  • Every year, right around November or so, my friends and family bring me their old computers for me to wipe clean. Either I would re-load them with the latest Ubuntu Linux so that their kids could use it for homework, or I would donate it to charity. Last November, I got a computer that could not boot from a CD-ROM, forcing me to build a bootable floppy. This gave me a chance to check out the various 1-disk and 2-disk versions of Linux and other rescue disks. I also have a 3-disk set of floppies for booting OS/2 in command line mode.

So while this unexpected box of nostalgia derailed my efforts to clean out my garage this weekend, it did inspire me to try to get some of the old files off them and onto my PC hard drive. I have already retrieved some low-res photographs, some emails I sent out, and trip reports I wrote. While floppy diskettes were notorious for being unreliable, and this box of floppies has been in the heat and cold for many Arizonan summers and winters, I am amazed that I was able to read the data off most of them so far, all the way back to data written in 1989. While the data is readable, in most cases I can't render it into useful information. This brings up a few valuable lessons:

Backups are not Archives

Some of the files are in proprietary formats, such as my backups for TurboTax software. I would need a PC running a correct level of Windows operating system, and that particular software, just to restore the data. TurboTax shipped new software every year, and I don't know how forward or backward-compatible each new release was.

Another set of floppies are labeled as being in "FDBACK" format. I have no idea what these are. Each floppy has just two files, "backup.001" and "control.001", for example.

Backups are intended solely to protect against unexpected loss from broken hardware or corrupted data. If you plan to keep data as archives for long-term retention, use archive formats that will last a long time, so that you can make sense of them later.

Operating System Compatibility

Windows 7 and all of my favorite flavors of Linux are able to recognize the standard "FAT" file system that nearly all of my floppies are written in. Sadly, I have some files that were compressed under OS/2 operating system using software called "Stacker". I may have to stand up an OS/2 machine just to check out what is actually on those floppies.

You can't judge a book by its cover

Floppies were a convenient form of data interchange. Sometimes, I reused commercially-labeled floppies to hold personal files. So, just because a floppy says "America On-Line (AOL) version 2.5 Installation", I can't just toss it away. It might actually contain something else entirely. This means I need to mount each floppy to check on its actual contents.

So what will I do with the floppies I can't read, can't write, and can't format? I think I will convert them into a [retro set of coasters], to protect my new living room furniture from hot and cold beverages.

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