All I Really Need To Know I Learned From 360K Floppies

Today I got inspired: to do something about these boxes of 360K and 1.44MB floppies scattered about the house. There are boxes dedicated to floppies, and floppies in boxes for other things, and floppies stacked on shelves. Some of them have moved with me through three states and thousands of miles without ever being read. Some are nearly 20 years old.

There’s a lot of stuff on those disks. Memories of grandparents, elementary and high school projects, and some code I wrote years ago in Pascal or C.

I decided to read in as many as I can and burn them all out to a CD-R or DVD-R.

Easy enough, right?

Well, not so much.

First, there’s the problem of reading the data itself. Some of the floppies have developed bad sectors in the years since they were last used. Most were formatted under DOS or Windows, and Linux has plenty of tools for reading FAT filesystems. But a few used OS/2’s HPFS. Not so easy to read these days.

1.44MB drives are still not too hard to find, but when’s the last time you saw a new PC sporting a 5.25″ drive? Bet it’s been a long time.

Then, there’s the problem of proprietary data formats. Back in the days of DOS, WordPerfect ruled the day for word processors. WordPerfect had pretty much the sort of stranglehold on the market then that Microsoft Word has today. I wrote lots of material in WordPerfect.

It’s all pretty difficult to get at these days. The very best thing I can do is install WordPerfect 6.0 for DOS and a PostScript printer driver. That will get *close* to the original document formatting, though not exact. (WordPerfect documents were tied to the fonts available in a particular printer, and an Apple Laserwriter doesn’t have much in common with a Panasonic KX-P1180 dot-matrix.) Once I have a PostScript file, I can pull it onto a Linux box and convert it to PDF. Lots of hassle.

Massachusetts made a wise move recently. If you really care about being able to read your documents decades down the road, you can’t be using a proprietary file format. Nobody would have expected WordPerfect’s spectacular fall (primarily due to being late to market with a Windows port). Nobody today expects a Word fall (perhaps due to being late to market with a Linux port?). But it probably will happen.

Then there’s the problem of proprietary software. WordPerfect is proprietary, and so is DOS. Neither are really prepared to run from a hard disk measuring in the hundreds of gigabytes on a modern PC sporting USB and other technologies never heard of in the 80s. But these are some of the easier apps. (Yes, I know there’s a Linux version of WordPerfect, but again, it’s proprietary, and can be difficult to make run on modern systems.)

Try an app like Lotus 1-2-3 that had copy protection. Or one that assumed that it can do whatever it wants with hardware. Not quite so easy now. VMWare can help sometimes, but sometimes it hinders. I had a lot of data backed up with Central Point Backup, part of the PC Tools suite. It formatted floppy disks in a special way (if I remember correctly, somehow getting one extra sector in each track.) Can’t even read them in Linux, and VMWare is clueless about what to do with them.

So I am converting everything I can to a standard, open format. Documents go to text and PDF. The CD/DVD is burned with RockRidge and Joliet, so just about any OS can access it. Documents I write now are mostly done in just ASCII or in LyX, both of which are readable as plain text. Linux can read many open formats that existed in the Unix world before Linux even did. I feel much better about things now.

But then there’s this blog. It’s stored in a MySQL database.


At least I have the source.

11 thoughts on “All I Really Need To Know I Learned From 360K Floppies

  1. This proves that even if the media used is safe(doesn’t mean floppy), the content still needs periodic re-archive, your wordperfect/1-2-3 example.

    The problem with CD-R/DVD-R is that they still will tend to be forgotten(we thought it is safe) and usually in multiple volumes, we don’t want to touch them for re-archive(shuffling multiple CD/DVD is time consumption and no fun).

    I have encountered this problem a few years ago and adopted a HD only backup policy. I just do a re-archive when I changed HD/Computer and with the right scripts, the file content would be brought to the then “updated” format. And because it is usually one HD, I can just let the machine do the job without my attention.

    1. Yeah, I can always run mysqldump to get it into an ASCII format.

      My note was because MySQL (like any other SQL database) has a binary on-disk format that you can’t read without, well, MySQL.

      1. That depends on what storage db mysql uses. If it is configured to use berkeley db then you can read it with berkeley db tools.

    1. I’ve looked at WPD. Unfortunately, my files are mostly WordPerfect 5.0 and 5.1, with a few even back to 4.2. I probably have a few WPD files, but not many.

      Thanks anyway ;-)

        1. Ahh. Even with footnotes, font changes, embedded graphics, etc? (From looking at the features page, it doesn’t look like those WP5 features are supported)

          Thanks for your comments.

  2. You can probably read the the disks with extra sectors
    under linux, using fdutils information and utilities:
    I had the opposite problem- a bunch of old 320k floppies
    with 8 sectors instead of 9 from dos 1.x? and Zenith ZDOS.

    Even without installing the fdutils, the standard distribution
    “setfdprm” (man setfdprm) allowed me to read the disks:
    Add to /etc/fdprm
    # size sec/t hds trk stre gap rate spec1 fmt_gap
    320/1200 640 8 2 40 1 0x23 0x01 0xDF 0x50

    and enter “setfdprm -p /dev/fd1 320/1200” !(my 5.25 drive is B:, fd1)
    This modifies fd1 so it won’t read normal 360k floppies until you reboot- use fd1h360
    Or there are instructions for making a new device for the 320k floppies.
    So I dd’d all my disks to images.
    Now if I could teach linux to mount the ZDOS disks/images!
    DOS6.22 uses them, maybe dosemu running dos6.22 will mount the images.

    1. Somewhat off topic, but I later learned how to fix the old zdos disk images so linux can read them. In case someone with the same problem googles to here:

      There is some information in the bootsector that tells what particular flavor of FAT this is, and I guess at that time there was only one flavor so it wasn’t needed.

      cp broken.ima good.ima
      dd bs=1 if=bsrec8z.dat \
      of=good.ima seek=3 conv=notrunc
      mount -oloop good.ima /mnt/d1

      where bsrec8z.dat is 59 bytes starting with #4 from a good disk of that format:
      00000000 5A 44 4F 53 20 20 20 20 00 02 02 01 00 02 70 00 ZDOS ……p.
      00000010 80 02 FF 01 00 08 00 02 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 …………….
      00000020 00 00 00 29 00 00 00 00 56 4F 4C 55 4D 45 4C 41 …)….VOLUMELA
      00000030 42 45 4C 46 41 54 31 32 20 20 20 BELFAT12

      for 9-sect disks that came later, this would be:
      00000000 5A 44 53 20 20 32 2E 30 00 02 02 01 00 02 70 00 ZDS 2.0……p.
      00000010 D0 02 FD 02 00 09 00 02 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 …………….
      00000020 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 …………….
      00000030 00 00 DF 02 25 02 08 2A FF 50 F6 ….%..*.P.

  3. I would have used Virtual PC to run a Windows 3.1 environment, and then run WordPerfect 5.0 or 5.1. WP 5 is around on the net for download – I have several old versions of it.

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