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Doomed Diskettes

The Doomed Diskettes

I recently undertook the Herculean task of going through all my diskettes, moving their contents onto my hard drive if worth keeping and then disposing of them. I had been pretty good about backing up data files and program installations to the extent that over the years I had accumulated in excess of 1800 diskettes. I haven’t actually used diskettes for several years now, all of which were created on old PCs. Going back through these diskettes was like going through a dust laden trunk from the attic. The worst part of going through all my diskettes was that the data transfer rate was agonizingly slow. You get used to the speed of CDs and USB memory sticks and then you pop in a diskette and drum your fingers as you wait.

This was not my first experience with migrating to a new media. Recall that 3.5 inch diskettes were preceded by 5.25 inch diskettes. Try today to find a disk drive able to read those! But that transition was very simple given that those diskettes (at least the ones I had) only held 720 kilobytes of data and I didn’t have very many of them. That was a piece of cake migration. This was different: 1800 diskettes able to hold 1.44 megabytes of data each. Not only did I have an order of magnitude difference in the number of diskettes but each diskette held twice as much information as their predecessors.

Amongst my old disks I did find quite a few surprises. The best gem was a diskette containing the source code and executable for the classic computer game Colossal Cave. I can remember playing this text-based adventure game in college – accessing the host system it was on over my 110 baud modem. If memory serves me correctly, this game was the original computer Adventure game.

Some of the other software I came across included:

  • CorelDraw version 2 (1991)
  • Windows 3.0 (1990)
  • PhotoFinish 1.0 by WordStar (1991)

The oldest software I found was IBM DisplayWrite 4 dated 1986. DisplayWrite was IBM’s first word processing software for the PC and an abomination it was. Rather than use it at work, I went out and bought a copy of Samna’s Ami Pro which was later purchased by Lotus and became Word Pro. I also found a diskette of software and references to BBS’ (Bulletin Board System). BBS’ were computer systems that you would dial into with your modem – the only way to fly in those pre-Internet days. Most of the BBS’ I wanted to connect to were a long distance phone call away and this was back in the days when long distance calls weren’t cheap.

The oldest data files dated back to 1989 and consisted of tables of data on near Earth asteroids. I also found backup copies of all the issues of Spacewatch and PSF News from the time when I was the editor of those publications.

At the finish of the project, the stacks of diskettes to toss numbered in excess of 1,700. I kept about 70 diskettes containing software, system utilities, etc. and another 20 blank diskettes. I next went through the files I had copied to my hard drive more closely, deleting those I considered either unimportant or redundant. At the conclusion of my project, I had just over 180 megabytes worth of files. It’s remarkable to think that of the files contained on over 1,700 diskettes, I was able to write all those I kept to a single CD with room to spare.

It’s even more remarkable to consider the great strides that have been made in data storage. In the early 1980’s diskettes could hold only 100 kilobytes of data. Today I have a portable USB hard drive that fits in my pocket and holds 250 gigabytes of data. Measured in terms of my 3.5 inch 1.44 megabyte diskettes, that’s the equivalent of 177,777 diskettes! (See Math Note 1 below) Here is another analogy: if each of my 1.44 megabyte diskettes had been filled to capacity, then my entire collection could have been written to four CDs or just one DVD.

Just as work grows to fill the available time, so to do files grow to fill the available space. When I started working with graphics files some 20 years ago, the files were small enough so that a number of them could fit on a single diskette. Today the size of my graphics files has grown to the extent that some consume the bulk of a single CD. And liberal use of a digital camera means that I now have tens of gigabytes of RAW files to back up. Now we have music and videos as well. At present I have in excess of 20 gigabytes worth of MP3 files and I expect that number to continue to grow. And there is every reason to believe that this trend will continue.

What does this all mean? The continued evolution of data storage technology means that the medium we save our files on today will not be accessible in the future. Combine this with our ability to save files of ever larger size in ever larger quantities. The bottom line is the next migration from CDs and DVDs to their successor could be a real nightmare – a task too hard even for Hercules.

Happy Computing, Jim

Math Note 1: Okay so I have a portable USB hard drive that holds 250 gigabytes which works out to be equal to the storage capacity of 177,777 3.5 inch diskettes. The picture at the top of this post is of a pile of something over 1,700 diskettes. That pile measures about 30 inches long by 14 inches wide and 13 inches tall. So a 5,460 cubic inch volume of space can hold 1,700 diskettes. Assuming the same degree of packing, it would take 570,980 cubic inches of space to hold 177,777 diskettes. That’s 330 cubic feet or a space that is approximately 7 feet long by 7 feet wide by 7 feet tall!. Imagine all that squeezed into a space that fits in my pocket.

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