I thought I was so clever, salvaging an old floppy drive from a dead computer, but I didn’t think *two* steps ahead…

When one of the oldest computers at Microsoft still doing useful work finally died, I had the presence of mind to salvage the 5¼″ floppy drive from the machine, so that I could (someday) extract the data off all the old 5¼″ floppy discs I have packed away in boxes meaning to convert someday. (Mind you, the data capacity of a giant box of 5&frac14″ floppy disks is approximately equal to half of a CD.)

Oh, and by the way, if you know what a floppy drive is, then this question on superuser.com will make you feel old.

I thought I was so clever, salvaging an old floppy drive from a dead computer so I could use it to rescue data from obsolescence, but that was only thinking one step ahead. I failed to think two steps ahead: Nobody makes motherboards with 5¼″ floppy drive connectors!

Bonus coincidental posting date: The Geeks Who Saved Prince of Persia's Source Code From Digital Death.

Comments (37)
  1. Anonymous Coward says:

    Don't lose hope; in the early 90s computers with both types of floppy drives were immensely popular and many of them are still in working order. Chances are, you'll be able to buy one, or maybe you know someone who knows someone who still has a working 5¼" drive.

  2. Skyborne says:

    My motherboard no longer even has a 3.5" floppy drive connector, but the drive is still in the case because I long ago lost the cover for that slot.  Maybe I'll buy a usb floppy/card-reader combo…

  3. Robin says:

    As far as I remember, the motherboard connector is the sasme it's just the connector on the cable thats differnt (I think 3.5" drivesuse IDC connectors, but 5.25" drives use card edge connectors.) So all you need to do is use the cable that the drive originally had (unless your motherboard has no floppy connector at all)

    I actually had (and probably still do) a computer with a floppy cable that could connect any combination of drives (it had both sorts of connectors both before and after the twist). My other favourite piece of equipment was an external floppy drive unit that had a 5.25" and a 3.5" drive in the enclosure and could be manually switched between the two!)

  4. Jack B Nimble says:

    A motherboard 10 or years older should still have a floppy connector on it. Surely as a person who kept their 486 for all those years you have a Pentium 2, 3, or 4 sitting around.

  5. Dan Bugglin says:

    Surely someone, somewhere, makes USB floppy drives or enclosures…

  6. Mike says:

    I was able to find a USB to 5 1/4" floppy adapter online by [insert search engine name]ing for about 30 seconds, you could always do something like that.

  7. ErikF says:

    I have an 8" diskette that I salvaged from my dad's office. Still have no clue what's on it, though: none of the computers that I've used has ever had an 8" drive!

  8. kinokijuf says:

    I have an old cable that lets you connect a 5.25 floppy to a 3.5 connector.

  9. 640k says:

    Two floppy drives is enough for everyone.

  10. KooKiz says:

    Oh my, I'm not the only one. Salvaged a 5.25' floppy drive, but couldn't get it to work. I even tried on an old Pentium 200 but it only supported 3.5' drives… I have an old 5.25' floppy I'd like to backup (if it's still readable), I'll gladly send it to anyone with the appropriate hardware.

  11. KooKiz says:

    @kinokijuf Unfortunately a connector isn't enough, the BIOS has to support the floppy drive as well.

  12. john says:

    hum, don't have a drive but I still have some old 8" disks too along with paper tapes and punch cards…. talking dating oneself.

  13. Joe Dietz says:

    I have a pile of obsolete machines at work that I've culled from the junk heap over the years starting with a Pentium 60mhz up through a Pentium D, and I'll probably be adding an early Core/Core2 system soon.  The point is that I still support software that in theory could run on NT4 on a Pentium 60mhz and the day I throw it out, I'm going to get a support case that requires that hardware.  This is becoming increasingly unlikely, but its not costing me anything to hang onto them in a corner of the lab so far….  Somebody helpfully put a sign on it that states this machine is the last unicorn and "no touchy".

  14. Joe D says:

    My machine still has a functioning dual 3.5/5.25 dual floppy drive in it.

    Both drives are in the same device and it only takes up a single drive bay.

    I've had it since the days of DOS and Windows 3.x.  Every time I've upgraded the machine, I've transplanted it to the new box along with any other usable hardware.

    Because you never know…

  15. William Furr says:

    5.25" floppy to USB controller:  http://www.deviceside.com/fc5025.html

  16. -dan says:

    Raymond works at Microsoft, there is no doubt in my mind he has access to computers with a floppy.

    My guess is he wrote about this because he knows damn well that many of us might still have floppies laying around, thinking that, some day we might get around to transferring the data and there is a chance when that day comes we won't be able to.  

    He's right.

    But that doesn't change the fact that I still have stuff sitting around from my Commodore 64, which I would love to boot up.

  17. Jeremy Croy says:

    In a related note, I got asked by a kid why the save icon looked like a some kind of door. It took me awhile to figure out he had never seen a 3.5 inch floppy. Man I felt old.

  18. LocalH says:

    @-dan: Get a working 1541/1571 and a ZoomFloppy (Google it, since it could appear as advertising, although I'm not related to the project). No need to track down or set up a computer slow enough to work with the old LPT adapter cables, it works over USB (and can also support drives modified with a parallel cable). Easiest way that I know of the dump CBM floppies.

  19. Ken Hagan says:

    @-dan: A good point, but…

    I certainly hope that someone at Microsoft still has real floppy hardware, or else they'll have trouble testing the drivers, but that doesn't mean they'd be pleased/allowed to lend the drive to Raymond. I dare say you can still buy new ones, but it is the dusty old rubbishy ones falling out of mechanical alignment that each version of Windows has to be backwards compatible with. New ones, particularly USB-based new ones, probably behave perfectly. Who wants that? :)

  20. Mott555 says:

    My PC still has a 3.5" floppy drive in it. It isn't actually connected though, it's a combo floppy drive/USB flash card reader that I carried over from a previous system. The card reader part still works fine, but my current motherboard does not have a floppy header.

  21. -dan says:

    @ LocalH :  cool I'm going to look into that, thanks.

    @ Ken : LOL

  22. alegr1 says:


    Sure you'll be able to change all MS software not to use the floppy icon anymore. I'll check on that later.

    VS 2011 is still using those icons. This doesn't make sense.

  23. jcs says:

    On the motherboard, don't the 3 1/2 inch drives and the 5 1/4 inch drives use the same port? I thought that the floppy *cables* were the ones that had the 3 1/2 and 5 1/4 connectors. I think if you found a motherboard with a floppy connector, there's a good chance that 5 1/4 drives would still work, just because nobody bothered to remove 5 1/4 support from the BIOS.

    I recently copied the contents of a big stack of 20-year-old floppies to my hard drive. Results were surprisingly good — about half the disks had no bad sectors, and most of the rest just had a few. My USB floppy drive was confused by the floppies from one distributor, who formatted 3 1/2" disks with 40 tracks per side (possibly in order to use the same disk images they used for the 5 1/4" disks.) A standard floppy drive connected to a 2003 motherboard was able to read these, but not the USB floppy drive.

  24. James Curran says:

    Well, *I* thought ahead… and I recently recovered a file from 1987 from an old 5 1/2" floppy.  If you need one read, just let me know….

  25. Joe says:

    And even if you had a computer that could read a 5 1/4" floppy, do you have software that could read the files on those floppies?

  26. voo says:

    Personal confession: Never seen a 5 1/4" floppy and I was always wondering why the hell those thingies in a hard plastic encasing were called "floppies".

    Now I'm feeling really young, ha. Should I get some crutches for the rest of you guys? ;)

  27. hagenp says:

    "Nobody makes motherboards with 5¼″ floppy drive connectors!"

    To my knowledge (and at a former workplace I had the privilege to use an original IBM AT), nobody ever did. The motherboard had one floppy connector for both 3.5" and 5.25" floppies. The cable did the adaptation (to the edge connector for the 5.25" flopppies). Probably you could use an external 3.5" USB Floppy driver and connect the 5.25" drive to it using the proper cable.

    If the problem is just to get data off some disks, look for "Vintage Computer Festival" people and "retro computing" mailing lists. Some computer museums will also be happy to lend a hand. (I donated my old hardware (including a streamer, and both types of floppy drives) to a local one.)

  28. Rick C says:

    @voo:  in retrospect, calling 3.5" disks floppies sounds weird, but they were talking about the disk, not the casing, in all cases.  The disk itself is just a piece of flexible plastic.

  29. Random User 23658901 says:

    I pulled a dual (3.5"/5.25") floppy drive from one of my older computers and put it in my current "main" machine. Surprisingly, it actually has a floppy controller, but it seems either the controller, or the BIOS, only supports one floppy drive, so I have to open up the case and flip jumpers around on the drive when I want to use the 5.25".

  30. David Walker says:

    Yep, the biggest problem with reading data from the old floppies is that the disks themselves seem to develop unreadable sectors after sitting in one place for 10 or 15 years or more.  I think the magnetic particles start to align North-South or something, instead of the way that gives the data some meaning.

    I recently removed the last floppy drive from any of my computers.  I had considered doing that a year ago, but I *knew* that as soon as I did that, someone would show up with a floppy disk and ask me if I could copy the contents to a flash drive for them.  So I held off.  No one asked…

    I finally removed the floppy drive last month, and sure enough, two days later a friend asked me to copy some data.  I knew it would happen!

  31. cheong00 says:

    I think I've seen unused 5 1/4 inch floppies + drive, plus a few 20MB tapes in server room of a bank last year.

    They have rich supply of replacement parts (be it new or old ones), just in case anything fails.

  32. Kevin Connolly says:

    They still sell PCI Super I/O cards which might have that ribbon header.

  33. James Curran says:

    @KooKiz: Contact me at {firstname}-dot-{lastname}-at-gmail-dot-com and we can work out getting the floppy for copying.

  34. David Ching says:

    Typo:  A 5 1/4 inch floppy holds about 320 KB (not MB), so it is not even close to half a CD (700 MB).

    [A HD floppy was 1.2MB. A moving box can hold about 40 boxes of floppies, each box of floppies held 10 disks, so you have around 400MB of data in a moving box full of floppies, which is around half a CD. -Raymond]
  35. Brian K says:

    I went back and re-read the oldest computer story again. Just like George kept the Frogger game going when he tried to push it across the street!

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