Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Demise of the Floppy Disk

I am appalled that I still regularly hear about genealogical data sitting on floppy disks. The earliest floppy disk memory storage systems were developed by IBM beginning back in 1967, long before the computer revolution began. The first read-write floppy disk was shipped in 1973 with the expressed purpose of replacing the punch card as a storage media. See Wikipedia:History of the floppy disk. The earliest microcomputers, in the 1970s, used cassette tapes. I can remember using a cassette tape drive on a computer.

The first floppy disks for consumer level computers were 8 inch and the drives cost more than the computer. The old 8 inch disks did not last long, because by 1976, Wang introduced the 5.25 inch floppy. Old CPM based computers converted to the 5.25 inch drives. This was my introduction to the world of microcomputing. In 1978 Apple introduced the 5.25 inch Disk II for the Apple II computer and I began entering data into an Apple II in a big way.

The original 5.25 floppy disk drives recorded information on only one side of the disk. So to use both sides, you had to remove the disk and turn it over to record on the other side. Even though double sided drives were introduced in this early time period, they were considered an expensive upgrade. But as it is with all computer developments, today's upgrade is tomorrows standard. By the 1980s we had huge piles of floppy disks.

The break-through came with the introduction of 3.5 inch floppy disks. There was some confusion in calling the new disks "floppy" because they came in a hard plastic cover so we were continually explaining to people that the term "floppy disk" referred to the Mylar plastic disk with the iron oxide coating inside the plastic holder. As the 3.5 inch disks gained in popularity, 5.25 inch disks faded into obscurity.

Genealogy did not become big on computers until well into the introduction of 3.5 inch floppy disks. So we didn't have a lot of issues transferring data from the 5.25 inch floppies over to the newer 3.5 inch ones.

During those early years, we did thousands of transfers of genealogical data from CPM and MSDOS formats to Apple OS and from Apple to MSDOS. Our store was right down the street from the Family History Center and many times a week, people would show up with disks for us to migrate or retrieve data.

On my own computers, my genealogical data quickly exceeded the capacity of even double-sided double density 3.5 inch floppy disks, but by using Personal Ancestral File, I could spread the data over several disks.

When Apple introduced the Macintosh computer in 1984, it had an internal 3.5 inch floppy drive. But the memory requirements of the graphic interface of the Macintosh soon exceeded the capacity of floppy drives and we began the process of using mechanical hard disk drives, now commonly called spinning media.

It has now been years since I owned a computer with a floppy disk drive.

But unfortunately, there are still large numbers of people out there in the genealogical community with data stored on 3.5 inch floppy disks. There are now two challenges to retrieving that data; finding a working 3.5 inch floppy drive and find a program that can read the file formats of the floppy disk.

Fortunately, you can still buy an external USB 3.5 inch floppy disk drive for under $20. But it will not be long before the last of the programs are available on anyone's computer that will read the file formats on the old data on the drives. If you know anyone who still has data on a 3.5 inch drive, now is the time to help them migrate that data to a flash drive or some other storage device. Time is running out.


  1. I have never used a floppy disc, however,my old HP circa 2004, has a drive. Maybe I can hold on to it and sell it at a great price in the future?

  2. I have a USB floppy drive I bought a few years ago after I got a laptop, to transfer my old files to my hard drive. I still have the drive in case anyone needs it.

  3. I don't know who is designing the capcha's but they are nearly unusable. I had to try 4 times to find one I could read.