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I have a number of 5.25" floppies for the BBC Micro which haven't been used since the 90s. I recently got my BBC Micro and Watford Electronics floppy drive down from the loft/attic, set it up and tried the disks. Unfortunately my floppy drive had fallen apart internally and no longer reads any of the disks. I tried fixing it (the drive head had come apart) but to no avail. There was no noticeable mould damage to the disks.

Are my floppies dead or is there any chance I could revive them after all this time in my roof? Is it worth trying to find a working drive or should I just cut my losses?

There's nothing particularly valuable on the disks, just memories of my favourite games, documents and programs I wrote myself. Yes, I realise I can get emulators but it's just not the same!

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How much data could be lost? Maybe 10% of a song?` :P` –  jjnguy Jul 15 '09 at 8:31
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16 Answers 16

up vote 21 down vote accepted
+100

How did you store them over the past decade or so? Where they in a cool, not-so-humid area away from direct sunlight? If so, I bet you have a decent chance of recovering the data if you can find a working drive.

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Interesting question. Those 5.25 disks are generally similar in quality of the newer 3.5 disks. And 3.5 disks are also considered antique since most new computers don't have a floppy drive anymore. Anyway, I have an USB-based 3.5 floppy drive which works just fine.

Looking at my own floppy disk collection from two decades ago, I noticed that most of them have had some damage due to years of not-using-them. Mostly bad sectors or just random blanks. These disks use a magnetized surface and this is slowly leaking away. (Faster if stored in sunlight or near large magnets.) I was able to still get data from some of those disks, though. Maybe about 20% of my disks are still completely readable. I did store them in a dark place, well-protected in a floppy case.

For disks with damaged data you might want to use a disk drive that's more sensitive than regular floppy disks. This would be special forensic hardware though, and thus a bit expensive if you're even able to find one. This disk could then be used to revive the data on those disks so you can transfer them to some other medium. But considering the value of your data, I don't expect this to be worth the trouble.

There will be another problem, though. Are those floppies used for an MS-DOS computer or for some other operating system? They might not be using the FAT file system but some other file system which Windows won't be able to read.

Formatting those floppies and using them as extra data storage isn't practical either, since they're likely to contain 320 or 360 kilobytes of data, depending on the number of sectors on those disks. Back then, this wasn't even enough to store the MS-DOS setup! It's no surprise that the 3.5 disk quickly replaced it, since the plastic cover made them tougher and the disks could have 720 KB or even 1440 KB, depending on disk quality. (Although you could transform a 720 KB floppy to an 1440 KB floppy by drilling a hole in the right place.)

They should not be dead, though. They might be blank, but not dead. If you format them all, I guess that 95% will be reusable. But you're not interested in getting extra disk space but the content of those disks. Well, it is possible to get part of them back, depending on how much you're willing to do and pay for the data recovery. You just have to consider if it's really worth the trouble. That's just between you and the data on those disks.

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+1 A good long answer but you've drifted away from my original question in a few places. I'm not using MS-DOS. –  tjrobinson Aug 25 '09 at 16:02
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If you read the question, he said he still has the original computer, but the (external) floppy drive has fallen apart. –  John Fouhy Aug 26 '09 at 1:42
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The discs probably aren't bad unless they were moisture or heat damage.

I suggest you head to your local thrift shop and look for a new drive and test it out.

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For what it's worth, I've still got a working 5.25 floppy on my PC, and I've been able to successfully read disks that have been in the basement since the early 90s. Floppies are actually pretty tough, as long as you keep them out of the sun and away from magnets.

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Since you say they were in the attic, they probably have many errors. Plus they were probably stored right next to each other, meaning the magnetic fields of each disk would interfere with the surrounding disks.

That said, if you ever want to try to get any data off of them, do it sooner, rather than later. The longer they sit, the more errors they get.

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Why the downvote? –  tjrobinson Jul 16 '09 at 8:52
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Without testing them on a working drive there is no way to tell that they are dead. You can probably still find drives on eBay.

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They built 'em to last in those days :)

Seriously, I remember breaking a pin off an EPROM (Disk Doctor I believe) and fixing it by placing the ROM into the socket anyway, then forcefully ramming a paperclip into the vacant hole in order to contact with the EPROM at the broken shoulder. Worked like a charm.

There must be loads of these old drives kicking around. I'll bet you can pick one up dirt cheap on eBay. If the disks were kept away from speakers etc. and were reasonably well-protected in a box or something, I'll bet they still work just fine.

Ah. Elite. The Sentinel. Revs. Proper games; not like the lightweight fluff you get today... Happy days....

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Roof areas (at least in the US) are designed to be uninsulated and allow outside air to circulate between soffit and roof/gable vents. If you stored your dinosaur in this environment for a long time, it's likely to have some damage from the elements (hot, cold, moisture). Since you're in the UK, I'd bet on moisture.

A dry basement would've worked best.

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Are you saying it rains a lot in the UK? ;) –  tjrobinson Jul 16 '09 at 8:52
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well the loft in our 1930's UK house gets very moist from outside air venting in... and hot when the sun shines on the slate roof. too bad most uk houses don't have basements, and ones that do aren't very dry either... –  geocoin Jul 23 '09 at 10:08
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My 1980 5.25" Apple II disks work fine. 160k/ double sided. These disks are 25-30 years old. I'd figure the Beeb' disks would be similar. The bit size on 5.25" is a lot bigger than on 3.5"; obversely it's almost impossible to kill 8" floppy disks.

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I've had mixed results with old 5.25" floppy disks. About 75% of mine worked last time I tried and about 25% had failed. Not only that, but the drive wouldn't read other disks until I cleaned it afterwards. The bad disks looked fine, no visible mold or anything else, but apparently something happens to them where they're able to contaminate the r/w head. Just something else to keep in mind, if a bunch of disks seem to fail at once, you might just need to clean the drive after each one to isolate which one is truly bad!

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Hypothetically, if you are able to find a 5.25" drive at a swap meet and the correct cable, you could connect it to a relatively modern computer (the last floppy controllers seem to have started fading out just around the Windows XP era) and read the disks using your x86 computer. From there it's just a matter of interpreting the data, which will be easy for ASCII but harder for binaries (but hey - that's what the aforementioned emulators are for).

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There used to be controller cards you could buy to enable Apple][ and other disk format access from a PC XT. These would allow you to duplicate, or image the disks, but not to actually read them in a PC. I think you should search ebay for my auction of one of these cards. I'm joking, but finding that would be harder than finding a newer/better BBC drive.

Your disks are more likely dead from being read in a questionable drive, than they are from storage. Many of my Apple ][ floppies seem to have worked 4 years ago, and I'm assuming still do.

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What do you mean when you say the drive had "fallen apart internally"? Without any more information it sounds like the drive alone is screwed and the discs have a chance of working. However, it's possibly that the duff drive has destroyed the floppies. There is only one way to find out, and you know it.

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I would say: "Why not to give it a try?". It shouldn't be hard to find such floppy drive. At least here where I live. Another thing is that it's not expensive either. So again - why not?

I think that would be a nice trip back in history to find some real gems in the shape of old games or self-written programs.

I wish you a wonderful trip with no errors and great memories :).

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How important are the memories? If you value them, buy a drive. If not, bin the disks and sell the old Beeb. Ebay is your answer for either option.

I know why you don't want to go the emulation route, but be aware that the old kit will fail eventually. You might consider ripping an image of the disks so that you can still use them in an emulator when that happens. These links might help:

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If you're willing to risk sending them out try: cleanersonline.com, a friend has some success with them.

Edit: should have read the whole thread. Since you are not using DOS these guys still offer their service but:

Please note that this Disk Copy Service is for standard format "PC" or "IBM" formats, 256 byte sector disks. Other floppy disks including Commodore, TRS, Televideo, etc. should be submitted using the standard Data Recovery Submission Form. If these formats are submitted for Standard Disk Copy Service, we will make an attempt to read them, yet cannot guarantee the results.

So you can still try if Ebay does not net you a new drive.

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