The return of the 5.25″ floppy drive

Manufactured in 1985, still kicking in 2010.

Yes, when it comes to books, computer magazines and assorted electronics, I’m a packrat. I also believe that obsolescence is in the eye of the beholder. Usually I’d like to declare something obsolete when it really is of no use to me anymore.

Putting aside the cassettes I used with the Commodore VIC-20 and 64 before buying the Commodore 1541 5.25″ disk drive, I have basically kept every bit of information I’ve saved on floppy disks since 1986. I still have more than 60 5.25″ floppies and more than 300 3.5″ floppies.

Today I finally found some time to install a 25-year old 5.25″ IBM internal floppy drive in a Pentium III PC I salvaged a couple of years ago. I had to open the PC box to see if I could upgrade its memory by using two old 128MB RAM sticks that were previously mounted in my PowerMac G4 Cube. For a long time I’d been thinking about that 5.25″ floppy drive I had in my old 386DX PC back in 1993. When I started packing my things in 2004 to relocate in Spain, I decided to get rid of a bunch of non-Mac stuff (yes, I said I’m a packrat, but every now and then even a packrat has to make tough decisions). That 386DX was a good machine, all in all, and I didn’t have much time to do a proper data backup. So I decided to dismantle it and salvage the main hard drive (130 megabytes!) and the 5.25″ floppy drive, because I still wanted to have access to the data stored in all those floppies — to preserve it and, if necessary, migrate it to more reliable supports. (By the way, these two posts by Jason Scott are really serendipitous, and I have to thank him implicitly for the inspiration that pushed me into action today).

I remember how this kind of media support was often considered frail and unreliable. It might be but, either I’ve been very lucky or (more probably) I have managed to preserve my diskettes quite well, because everything’s there where I left it — and for some disks it means in 1988.

But the amazing thing is the story of this floppy drive.

Manufactured by IBM in 1985, it came with an IBM PC/AT my dad brought home from work around 1988. When I got rid of that desktop beast, I moved the drive in the new IBM-compatible PC (80386DX at 40MHz) my parents gave me as a birthday gift in 1993. That PC came already equipped with a more modern 3.5″ floppy drive and even had a CD-ROM drive. But I still had old 5.25″ floppies around, full of notes, poems, stories I furiously wrote with a DOS-based unnamed word processor that I had found in the PC/AT a few years back. I had to continue to access those precious texts, so I put the 5.25″ drive in the only empty bay available. That drive then remained in service there from 1993 to 2003. When said PC was dumped in 2004, the drive was removed and kept in storage. Until today.

It never malfunctioned. It never gave me a problem. It never fail to read, write or format a diskette. All the 5.25″ floppies I tested today were good. Some of them are almost 25 years old. So much for unreliability.

This is beautiful.

(See the rest of the set on flickr, where you’ll see more of the drive, some of my floppies, and a very nice find too.)

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6 thoughts on “The return of the 5.25″ floppy drive

  1. IBM hardware, at least up through the XT/AT/PS2 era, were practically designed and built to survive a nuclear holocaust. It really was robust and well made, much more so than most of the junk made in Asia now.

  2. Hi, I had a diskless XT with 2 half height 5.25 floppy drive in 1986, and later added a 30mb hardcard (plug-in disk on a card – wouldn’t have known how to install a real disk drive), then dismantled it in the late 90’s. I went through 4 IBM PS2/55’s during the 90’s followed by an IBM Aptiva 1998-ish to 2006.
    Not having moved house I still have all the internal components in boxes in the loft. Unfortunately I dont do techie stuff, so I have over 300 IBM PC SIG and PC BLUE shareware floppies plus around 700 other 5.25 floppies probably with loads of primitive games and software that I can’t use. Every so often I search the web for a USB 5.25 floppy drive ready-to-plug-and-play, without success, but maybe one day I might get to see some of the old stuff! Regards, Alan

  3. Hi,
    I agree with you about the life of 5.25″ floppies. I too have dozens of them and a surprise that they all work (they are of all types sd dd hd) and out of them only two have bad sectors but they also work. I guess they are much more reliable than todays stuff.

  4. a bit late, i don’t know if anyone even reads this post anymore, but i can relate, very well i might add. They really did build those things well, i have an alps 360kb salvaged out of a pc jr, part of the connector is busted off, the 4 pins after the key-weigh for the plug, and a very poorly aligned track 0 sensor, it STILL will read any 5.25 360kb disk you throw at it, almost after 30 years,,,, they sure don’t build them like that anymore..

  5. I have hundreds of 5.25″ floppies, stored in plastic boxes and most of them still work!
    If you put them in paper boxes they will collect dust and suffer, also the drive could use a cleaning floppy from time to time!

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