- Stephen, the dumbest kid in middle school,
on the first day of our computer class, fall 1986
I spent some time over the last few days going through over 120 old floppy disks, and transferring the data to my hard drive. These disks have been sitting under my kitchen table for years. I don't think they've been there for seven years (which is how long I've been in my current apartment), but they've certainly been there for while. I might have gotten them out of my parents' storage when they moved. In fact, I inherited a LOT of stuff when they moved: both stuff of theirs that they managed to hand off to me, and stuff of mine that I had been keeping in their basement as storage.
So, those of you who never touched a computer before the 1990s, if not this decade, may be asking: what is a "floppy disk"? And how come personal computers put everything on a "C:\" drive, and don't have a "B:\" drive?
The Olden Days
My first computer was an Apple IIc (pronounced "two-see"), which my parents bought in 1984. This was the age when a lot of homes were getting their first computers, because they were now being marketed to families. "Dad can use it to do business stuff! Mom can use it to file recipes in a database! The kids can use it to play video games!" It took 5 1/4" floppies, like the kind you see in the middle of the above photo. And no, their casing wasn't always orange. 99% of them were black or gray.
On a side note, what I find funny is that the numeric price of computers back then hasn't really changed that much: $2000 will always get you the latest and greatest state-of-the-art package, $1000 will get you the everything but a notch down. They do however become better and better values because their speed and capacities are always increasing. (And no, this isn't some vast conspiracy to keep you buying new machines every few years. If a company in 1999 could have created a computer that had ten times the memory and hard drive space like they do now, AND make a profit when selling it at the same price of competitors...believe me, they would have done so!.)
So getting back to "floppy" disks. Why were they called "floppy"? Well, they're physically flimsy, that's why. This was different from "hard" drives, which were (and still are) physically rigid. Floppy disks were actually flat and round, with a square plastic covering on the outside to protect the data. Even when the 3.5" disk came out with its rigid casing, these too were still called "floppies" even if they didn't flop around much.
The earliest computers basically had to be programmed beforehand for anything you wanted to do. Floppy disks made it easy to run different programs on the same computer, because they gave you a way of storing and retrieving the data. But you could only run one disk at a time. My little IIc had no hard drive, and instead had a floppy drive. Did you want to use the computer to type a paper? Then you put in your disk for the word processor program you bought, and turned on the computer to load it. Want to play a game? You'd have to shut down the computer, take out the word processor disc, put in the game disc, and start the computer (or if you were tech-savvy, just swap the disk when it wasn't being read, and hit the keys to reboot). Did you want to save anything? Well then you had to put in a formatted disk for that to save the changes, then put your program disk back in.I Can "C" Clearly
Eventually, home computers did have hard drives. They also had some interface like Apple Macintosh or Windows so that you could graphically navigate what was on there. But we still had floppy disks. They were very helpful for transferring files. Wanted to bring some work home from the office? No problem. Save the data to one or more floppy disks, then bring them home with you. Just make sure you didn't touch the exposed surface, put them near a magnet, bend them, or keep them in your car on a hot summer day, or else the disk might get damaged. "Wait, Bill. Couldn't you just email files to yourself?" Not really, considering how slow modems worked back in the day, let alone the fact that not everybody used them.
At some point, the popularity of the 5.25" floppies (top photo, center) gave way to the 3.5" floppies (top photo, right). They were smaller, immensely more durable, and eventually could hold more information. During this transition, there were many personal computers that had place to insert 3.5 disks and a place to insert 5.25" drives. That is why there is no "B" drive on your computer. The 5.25" disks were largely discontinued, so the "B:\" drive that normally took them was removed from newer computers. This still left the "A:\" drive for 3.5" floppies and the "C:\" drive as your hard drive. But in recent years the A:\ drives have disappeared too. That's why your hard drive is "C:\" and your CD/DVD-ROM drives are named after higher letters in the alphabet.
When my father first tried playing with blank CD-ROMs just a few years ago, he didn't understand why he couldn't save anything to them. I found out what he was doing wrong: he was treating them like floppy disks. He thought all you had to do was put a blank CD in the tray, close the tray, and then try to save the file in an application TO the drive with the CD-ROM. I don't him that it doesn't work that way. You have to BURN an image to a CD-ROM. Parents; go figure.
The "A" Files
Getting back to the combat clutter, here are some things I found when I looked through my floppy disks:
- Useless Disks. These included boot-up and recovery disks to computers I no longer own, and software for things like printers and CD-ROM drives I no longer own. 20 of these disks were recovery disks for some machine I had running Windows 95! There were also the back-up files to some resume program I got from my college during my senior year.
- Old emails and other files. Some of these were saved about as far back as 1994. These will certainly be interesting to go through. Or will they? There's always the embarrassment of reading an old diary and thinking, "I said THAT?!?" I deleted the content from the disks once I had everything copied over to my hard drive.
- Games, screen savers, etc. OK, they were only games that could fit on a floppy disk, but hey, that was state-of-the-art stuff at some point.
- Old work stuff. Yep, still using floppies into 2002.
- Some nice oddities. One of these was a disk my brother got at a Beastie Boys concert some time around 1992 or 1993. It was basically a way to access their website at the time on Sprynet. That sort of thing was unheard of back then. This is something worth putting on eBay.
The total amount of data I took from the disks only came out to about 50 MB. Easy to burn to a CD-ROM.
So what to do with these? I have a weird suspicion that there's SOMEBODY out there who still uses floppy disks, either for personal use or because it's what's needed for some company who hasn't upgraded their technology in a decade. I'll probably throw out a "Free floppy disks!" ad to Craigslist.org and see who bites.How Big?
This got my mathematical mind thinking. How much cheaper and bigger has data storage gotten over the years?
A lot of these floppy disks were double density. These were the "better" kind that could each hold a whopping 1.44 megabytes of data. What's the biggest "non-hard drive" source of data you can buy in the stores today? CD-ROM discs carry about 700 MB of data. DVD-ROM discs can carry around 4.7 GB. But a Blu-Ray data disc with dual layering can take a burning of 50 GB! The discs aren't cheap, and burners are hard to come by, but they're around.
So I did the math. To get the number of 3.5" double-density floppy disks it would take to cover as much data as a single dual-layted Blue-Ray data disc...you would need a stack that was around 120 yards tall, the length of a football field. That's running the whole length of the football field, plus end zones. Laid edge to edge, that would be 8 times longer than the height of the Empire State building. Hooray for technology!