A blast from the computer past


I was amused to learn of a California company that’s recycling and selling old-fashioned floppy disks by the hundreds every day.

Tom Persky runs floppydisk.com, a California-based online disk recycling service that takes in new and used disks before sending them onto a reliable customer base — he reckons he sells about 500 disks a day.

Who buys floppy disks in an age when more sophisticated storage devices like CD-ROMS, DVDs and USB flash drives have been made increasingly obsolete by internet and cloud storage? Those in the embroidery, tool and die, and airline industry, especially those involved in aircraft maintenance, says Persky.

“If you built a plane 20 or 30 or even 40 years ago, you would use a floppy disk to get information in and out of some of the avionics of that airplane,” said 73-year-old Persky.

There’s more at the link.

That brings back lots of memories.  When I got started in computers in the 1970’s, the big 8″ floppy disks were widely used with the IBM Displaywriter System, and the IBM PC and clones soon popularized the smaller 5¼” diskettes.  By the mid-1980’s the 3½” “stiffy” diskettes were taking over.  I had rack after rack of them all at my workstation in the office, and more of them at home.  However, by the early 1990’s almost all of them had gone the way of the dinosaur.  Rewritable CD’s were the thing, to be followed in the 2000’s by the thumb drive and other technologies.

I’m surprised to learn that so many systems still use them.  I was aware that the US strategic deterrent Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles still used floppies for their software until very recently, but then, they were designed in the 1970’s, so that’s logical.  I wasn’t aware that many aircraft still used them – I thought they would have been updated to more modern media long ago.

How many of you, dear readers, can remember covering the read/write notch on the edge of a floppy disk with tape, to make it read-only and prevent some overenthusiastic moron in your department from overwriting your precious code or subroutines?



  1. I remember covering the notch to make read only… if only to keep myself from farcking things up.

    I also remember cutting a second notch on the opposite side to allow for double sided reading on the 5.25" floppies (?-am I recollecting that correctly? Been awhile…)

    I still have a small stack of 3.5" floppies around here in a box – a small fraction of what I once had, of course.

  2. I used to work on DEC (Digital Equipment Corp) PDP-11 data processors. They used a metallic platter in a hard plastic case that had to be mounted and dismounted on the top of the machine. While everyone remembers the fears of Y2K that never panned out, all of our PDP-11's stopped working at 00:00 on January 1, 1990. Apparently the software version we were running wasn't meant to be working past that date. It took several months of the PDP-11's being O.O.S. and customers estimating the data before an upgrade became available. A couple of years later they were gone, replaced by a more integrated system.

    1. I have a shrink wrapped Box of 5.25 and a bunch of used 3.5 from 20 years ago.
      I even have a box of 8" I found at my last job…

  3. The "flippies" where you cut the notch and flipped the disk to use the other side was for the old single sided drives like Commodore used.

    I'm old enough to have used the 8" floppy disks that preceded the 5.25" disks.

  4. I was using 3.5" floppies until a few years ago, when the last Nortel phone system I maintained was replaced with a VoIP system. Meridian parts and phones are still being sold, so there's still demand for them.

  5. Your doofus of the day from a few months ago about the Japanese city that sent one guy everyone's welfare checks was in part caused by the city still using floppy disks as part of the payment process. Turns out the guy who really knew how the system worked had just retired so they had a junior and a brand new hire from (literally) a few days before do the process and they cocked it up

  6. I still have 3-1/2" floppies here – just out of reach of my left hand without moving my chair. I'm pretty sure there are some 5-1/4" disks, too.

    Some time in my first year at my last job (that I retired from) they brought in an older model radio for me to test out a new radio's service bulletin on. This was the summer of 1996. I looked at the date code on the radio and it said it was from 1969 – my last year of 9th grade/start of 10th. There are many of those radios still in service, though not as many as 26 years ago in '96. Those radios were factory installed in Lockheed L-1011s (among others). As it turned out the old radios didn't require the service bulletin. They passed the new requirement already.

    When a good company puts out a product, they will support that product as long as humanly possible. If that means going to get floppies from a company like that, just like tracking down long obsolete integrated circuits, it's just "the cost of doing business."

  7. I cleaned out my basement and tossed two 8", about a dozen 5&1/4, two shoe boxes of 3.5's, another shoe box of Zip drive cassettes, and a zip drive last month. I also had half a box of punch cards. I also trashed my 386 computer, the first computer I built. It was a 386 that I maxed out the ram, sound card, and top video card. It had 5 & 1/4 and 3.5 floppies. I splurged and got the biggest HDD available, a 80 MB drive that I loaded DOS 3 and Windows 2 on it. I made the mistake of upgrading to DOS4 when it came out and had all kinds of problems. I added a second 250 mb HDD when DOS5 came out along with the latest version of Windows. That computer was a powerhouse. I also tossed 6 laptops, a few monitors, and a couple of docking stations.

  8. I worked at the Strategic Missile System Program Office when I was an Engineer in the Air Force Reserves 20+ years ago. Changing anything in a missile system required jumping through so many hoops that sometimes it was just not practical to make changes. There were even semiconductor foundries that made otherwise out of production semiconductors for repair. That is why they hung on to the 8" floppies for the Minuteman Missile System.

    Just a couple of days ago I found I had about 20 3.5" diskettes, a whole bunch of recordable CDs and even some Zip Disks (100 MB and 250 MB — another kind of removable media). Somewhere else there is a trove of 5 1/4 disks; some are for a Radio Shack Model I Level 2 computer clone with the disk drive add on.

  9. I have a bunch of 512 floppies for my Atari 800 xl. Just need to replace the reader somewhere. I spent many hours in the 80s and 90s playing Silent Service, Eastern Front 1941, and Kamfhgruppe. Those were more like board games that the spectacles you can buy now.

  10. Angantyr: You cut the notch on the other side so you could use both sides of the diskette on a single sided (180k) drive, assuming you were doing this on either something that predated the IBM PC (like an Apple 2, TRS80, or a CPM system) or a VERY early IBM PC.

    I wrote a DOS utility that would let you format 5" 'Double Density' diskettes as 720k instead of 360k, losing backwards compatibility with older machines. For some reason that capability was not included in the standard FORMAT command. However, nobody really wanted it.

    One thing I don't miss is loading the bootloader on paper tape on the teletype to get the disk to work…

  11. I remember going to CompUSA in Encinitas and finding 100 floppy disks on the free shelf at the entrance to the store. They had a dozen or so things that were always on the free shelf because they'd help you fill out the rebate coupon at the register and you could walk out with cans of air, floppies, and some software. Cutting edge of the mid 90s….

  12. That and I remember bringing trays of cards over to Keypunch for processing. They thought I should hate my tasks and I thought the same of theirs.

  13. '
    For a real, limited but essential, skill consider reading the information from an airplane on the ground in the back of beyond and sending the data to say Seattle while leaving originals with the airplane and/or in custody of local authorities.

    For another tale from the old days there was a critical nuclear war fighting system with a logic flaw from the maker. The system could be remote queried to run a diagnostic and report over pots. Sort of "are you still alive? (for another few minutes?)" morale builder. Given the command run a diagnostic without a terminate and report the console went to a hardware reset.

  14. I actually WAS the 'overenthusiastc moron' in one company – everyone else was scared of computers so wouldn't touch anything associated with them. Ah, the good old days when computers were terrifying!

  15. @BillB
    I have some ZIP disks and an external ZIP drive as well. At the time it was such an amazing leap in storage… but then, so were the 5-1/4" and 3-1/2" disks as well…

    The 5-1/4" disks I had were for my Commodore 64. I love how the disk drive for that was the size of a shoe box! Wish I hadn't gotten rid of the C64, it was a really neat piece of tech for the time period.

  16. I started programming in Fortran using punch cards in 1968.
    I did punch cards, 8" worked for a company that used Radio Shack Model 12, had 2 8" floppies, a 5 MG HD, 2 processors, Z80 & ?, could do 5 users and multi tasking long before Apple.

    Was on a project where I needed to do temperature mapping. Company rented a older temperature mapping device that used 3.5" disk. Needed to format 3.5" but all the company computers were using Win 95 which couldn't format the disk as that was no longer an option since XP (DOS based) was phased out. Brough in an older laptop and did the formatting. Got my son a Commodore, RS Color, etc. He now does gov project IT work. Maybe I should write a book.

  17. I worked in the Clean Room in for the Medical Information Bureau, an insurance clearinghouse, in the 90's. The massive clean room with it's false floor and HEPA ventilation, housed FOUR, count them, FOUR mainframe computers, each the size of a car, and bank after bank of reel-to-reel data banks.
    Today my phone has more memory than that store-sized room.

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