"Mother, tell your children not to walk my way." -Danzig, "Mother"

A Little Trove of Disks

Many years ago when I began collecting vintage computer hardware, every acquisition got me excited. Each new computer, floppy drive, and box of assorted peripherals that came into the house made me absolutely giddy. But after you’ve tested, cleaned, and aligned your hundredth floppy drive, and installed additional shelving in your garage to hold all those old CRT monitors you might need someday, the elation of “yet another” old piece of hardware begins to wane.

What never gets old for me, however, is digging through other people’s software collections.

A year or two ago I acquired a(nother) complete Commodore system through Craigslist. If memory serves I gave the computer and disk drive to a friend, kept the monitor, threw the printer into the garbage, and put the box of disks onto a shelf to go through at some later date when I had some spare time.

Last weekend, I had some spare time.

According to a detached label I found floating around inside the box of disks, the original owner of this collection lived in Checotah, Oklahoma. I am immediately struck by the fact that I have never been to nor heard of Checotah, Oklahoma. When I began collecting old computers, it seems like I mostly acquired them from the original owners. Each purchase came with an oral history and testimonial, some of which were more interesting than the contents of disks themselves. When I acquire things today, it is usually not from the original owner. Often it’s from someone who inherited the items after the original owner passed away.

Unlike hardware, floppy disks are like snowflakes. Each diskette is a unique combination of its owner and the times, beginning with its label. The labels that document each disk’s contents are usually handwritten. There are different styles and colors; some are glossy and some are matte. Some contain the name of a single game while others list specific loading instructions. The one in my hands reads, “TRACK AND FIELD. LOADING SCREEN IS GARBLED. WAIT THREE MINUTES FOR GAME TO LOAD.”

By default only the top side of Commodore, Apple, or Atari floppy disks could be written to, but by using a cheap disk notcher, data could also be stored on the back side. While official disk notchers were available for $5 or less at most computer stores, some people opted for office-issue hole punches, leaving a signature half-circle on the left hand side of each disk. Others resorted to scissors or knives. A couple of the diskettes in this collection look like the owner let a squirrel gnaw on the edge for a while. Whatever works.

There was a time when converting these physical disks into digital disk images that can easily be accessed and stored on modern computers required a degree in geekery and a wizard’s bag full of magic cables perform. Not any more. Today I have two or three different methods of slurping the data up; the one I use depends on the contents of the disks. I usually start with a ZoomFloppy and a 1571 disk drive. For disks that need more love I move to a 1541 modified with a parallel port. Occasionally, I’ll resort to using my 1541 Ultimate with a 1541 acting as a slave. There’s no right way to do any of this, although there are plenty of people standing by to tell you you’re doing it wrong.

Not always, but often, I can tell how well a disk is going to transfer by the sound. Most of them emit a smooth, rotating sound. Others click loudly. Sometimes, one will squeal and creak like a parched door hinge desperate for oil. By and large, the more sound a disk makes, the more likely I won’t be able to read it.

There are more desperate methods of recovering lost data, although for most of the stuff I’m archiving, they’re rarely worth performing. If something looks really interesting I’ll clean the drive, clean the disk, and fiddle with the drive’s speed and alignment. If all that fails, the disk either makes its way to a rainy day stack or the trash, depending on the mood. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into saving things that I haven’t quite figured out why I’m saving, or who I’m saving them for.

If there was one disk that disappointed me, it was this one. The original owner packed so many programs on this single disk that he needed two labels to list all the programs. Bingo! Banner! Dice Roll! Man, if these don’t sound like a good way to spend a Friday evening, what does? Unfortunately, this was one of those disks that hung up at the 5% mark. I tried all the tricks I know and still couldn’t get it to read. Considering that all of these disks are 30+ years old, the fact that any of them still work is somewhat amazing.

Most of the programs I archive fall under one of three categories: games I’ve seen a thousand times, BASIC programs that were either typed in from magazines or created by enterprising computing enthusiasts, and “other.” It’s the promise of that last category that keeps me doing this. Each time I find a disk of pictures that someone drew 30 years ago, or school newsletters, or someone’s school reports, those are the snapshots in time that make all of this interesting to me.

Someday when I get things organized I’ll zip everything up and post them online. Until then, I’ll just keep doing what I do.

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3 comments to A Little Trove of Disks

  • Panter

    I always love the mystery of old disks like these. Browsing the internet archive gives me a similar feeling, but it isn’t quite the same of actually finding something interesting on an old floppy. Maybe archive.org would make a good home for the images you made of these floppies as well?

  • AArdvark

    Just the sight of those floppies gets me all retro jacked! Turned on DirMaster and renamed some of my D64 files, just because. I’ll never use ’em but ya gotta feed the monkey somehow.


  • I know the feeling! I have nearly 700 floppy disks, mostly Commodore, that I’ve acquired over the years and have only slowly been able to find the time to archive. But I do love coming across those one-of-a-kind disks that have an original owner’s unique assortment of files.

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