Copying old floppy disks – an adventure in time!

Yesterday I inherited a couple of cases of old 3.5″ floppy disks.  Most of them were plainly software, of no special relevance.  But it was possible that some contained files and photographs of a deceased relative, which should be preserved.

My first instinct was to use my travelling laptop, which runs Windows 7, and a USB external floppy drive which is branded as Dell but seems to be display the label TEAC FD-05PUB in Devices and Printers.  This seems to be the one USB floppy drive available under various names.  But when I inserted the first floppy, Windows told me that the floppy needed to be formatted.  Obviously it could not read the disk, so no good.

At this end of the game, I think I understand why.  The reason seems to be that the floppy was an original 3.5″ 720kb unit, while later 3.5″ drives were formatted for 1.44 mb.  The TEAC FD-05PUB driver is badly written and only understands the latter format.  So it supposes that the 720k disk is not formatted.  This is shoddy work by somebody, and needs to be fixed.

At least the floppy drive does work with Windows 7.  Apparently it often does not work with Windows 10, thanks to an attempt by Microsoft to drop support for it.  There are various workarounds, such as this one.  But it didn’t help me read that disk.

However I still have all the laptops that I have ever bought, since I started freelancing in 1997.  Surely the older ones would have a built-in floppy drive?

A twenty-year old Dell Inspiron 7500 peeks out from under a monitor.

The oldest machine is a Compaq – remember them?  But this refuses to boot, complaining about the date and time.  The internal CMOS battery is long flat, it seems.  Unsure what to do, I leave this.

Next up is a chunky Dell Inspiron 7500.  This too refuses to boot, but – more helpfully – offers to take me into Setup, for the BIOS.  I go in, and, acting on instinct, set the date and time and invite it to continue.  And … it works!  I did have some hard thoughts about whoever decided that a flat battery should prevent Windows booting, mind you!

Anyway it boots up in Windows 98.  A swift shove of the disk into the floppy drive, and … I can see the contents.  In fact the disk does contain some useful files.  I copy them into a file on the desktop.

Next problem – how do I get the files off the machine and onto something useful?

This proves to be quite a problem!  The machine does not have a built-in CD writer.  It does not have a network port, although it does have serial and parallel ports.  (I had visions at this point of using dear old, slow old Laplink!)  It was once connected to the internet – by dialup!  It does have some PCMCIA card slots.  I toy with seeing if I could get a PCMCIA-to-USB card – they do exist.  PCMCIA is 16 bit, tho.  I think you can do this sort of thing, although not for USB.

Maybe I could get a PCMCIA network card!  They’re all long out of production, of course.  I used to have one, in fact, I vaguely recall.  I also recall throwing it out.  I am not looking forward to trying to configure networking anyway.

I don’t suppose there is a Wifi interface built in?  Not likely.  But anyway I right-click on My Computer, Properties, and look at the Devices tab.  And I forget all about Wifi when I see the magic words … Universal Serial Bus.  Yup – that’s USB!  So there is support there.  But why?  There’s no USB port.  I hunt around the rear once more… and spy… a USB port!!!  Hidden where it won’t be seen!  Yay!

But I am not home yet.  Oh no.  When I stick a USB2 key drive in, it demands a driver!  It seems that Windows 98 did not recognise USB drives by default.  You have to install a driver.  Luckily there is one.  You download nusb36e.exe from the web on your main computer, burn it to a CDR – a normal 700Mb one will do -, and then read that in the CD drive that – thankfully – is built in to the machine.  Full instructions are here.  You remove all the existing USB drivers, install the patch, restart, and get an extra USB driver.

I shove a USB2 key drive in, and up it comes as drive E.  Magic!

But I am still not home and dry.  When I click on it, it demands to format it!!  The reason for this is that modern keydrives use the NTFS file system, whereas Win98 was still using the old FAT32 system.  So I go ahead – it’s an empty drive.

Finally it works.  The USB drive opens in Windows explorer, I copy the files, pull the drive out and insert it into my main machine.  And …. I can see the files!!!  Phew!

Now to sift through all those floppies…. yuk!

Pretty painful, I think you’ll admit.  Only just possible.  In a few years those floppies will be useless to anybody but a laboratory.  But they have retained their formatting well, for more than 20 years.

So don’t assume the worst, if you can’t read a floppy in your nice new machine.  It may not be the floppy.


12 thoughts on “Copying old floppy disks – an adventure in time!

  1. Yet more of your software (and hardware) archaeology. Good job!! You are just putting in perspective how much harder is to work today with something that is only 20 years old compared to old forms of writing.

    Oldest uncial manuscripts are more readily available than floppy disks!

  2. It is surreal, isn’t it? And … it won’t stop. In 20 years time will anybody be able to read html? Or a pdf? Or a USB stick?

  3. I didn’t understand a word of it, but it’s interesting to see what books you keep by your desk and which one you use to raise your monitor. I use a thick Larousse dictionary.

  4. Ha! You missed nothing, but it was an awful process.

    The Hendrickson is a book of American literary anecdotes, deeply dull, intended for disposal, but just the right height to raise that monitor on the filing cabinet to the level of the other two (I have a three monitor setup).

    The books in that book case were collected in my younger days, and are there because that book case always had those books in it, and it happens to fit the gap between the filing cabinet and the wall. They are not there for ready reference. The top row are a collection of Christian school stories – Solomon Goes to School, etc – by Montague Goodman. One of these came my way by accident in my unregenerate days, and I collected others in the 80s. Beneath that are Penguin paperbacks of Sherlock Holmes novels, John Evelyn’s diary, 101 things to do during a dull sermon, Selected Essays of Rose Macaulay, etc. The bottom row contains inherited reference books, a couple of novels by Talbot Mundy, King of the Khyber Rifles and Rung Ho!, two volumes of a Year in Provence, and The Gryphon Quest by Margaret Greaves.

  5. Good old habit of using books for various unintended usages. I have a pocket Polish-English dictionary I use primarily for elevating my laptop and it served this new purpose excellently for past 3 years, I picked up for 50 pence on a whim at some book market. Old encyclopedia were used quite a lot for pressing flowers in primary school.

  6. Ha! When I was still freelancing, I often saw old computer manuals used to elevate monitors. What a world of human discomfort these habits reveal!

  7. Roger’s adventures in recovering data from old media demonstrates that it is absolutely essential to back up everything to paper.

  8. I’m rather surprised we kept up with 1.44mb floppy discs for so long given their considerable size limitations; any program worth its salt required multiple floppy discs to install, I remember the process in which you’d put in one, start the install, then it would start that up and eventually spit it out and ask you for another one.

  9. I still have some Zip disks knocking about. I think my original drive had a parallel or scsi interface, which I’d have no hope of ever reading, but then I later inherited an early USB version from my dad (translucent orange plastic, I believe). It came in useful a few years back, after I had obliterated a novel from my PC in a fit of melancholy. I was able to retrieve some of it from one of those backup drives circa 1997. I binned the floppy disks though, having no means to read them now.

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