Floppy Disk Nostalgia

The past few months have been an ongoing exercise to rid myself of worldly possessions. I have thrown out, given away, or sold many objects that I once held dear. From my fish and aquarium, to hard drives I’ve collected over the years, to my car, anything that is not compatible with my future plans is fair game.

I once wrote that one purpose of this website was to write things down to help me reinforce what I learned about computers. At this stage of my life, I am writing things down to help me remember and cherish those objects that had brought me enjoyment. Although I would love to keep everything, the problem with doing so is that they take up space, and I do not touch, look at, or think about them for years on end. Then, every so often, I might pull out a box from under my bed, get really excited about its contents for a while, and then stuff everything back down there again for another few years.

If I am to move to a place like Hong Kong or any other place (including San Francisco) where living space is at a premium, then I had better find a different way to get my nostalgia and sentiment fix. One way I have found is to photograph and catalog nostalgic items, and then post the results on my website. Viewing photos and descriptions online rekindles the same feelings as pulling out that box, and is much easier. I can browse the nostalgia category or search on a keyword and instantly transport myself back to the good old days without having to crawl under my bed and pull out dusty old boxes. Of course, there will always be one or two objects that hold particular sentimental value to me, and these objects will be off limits to the garbage can.

Today, I will be transporting myself back to my early days of personal computing with my old friend, the five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disk.

My favorite floppy disk has always been the 5.25-incher. To me, the term “floppy disk” will always refer to this size, probably because this was the first type that I encountered. (I could never understand how the 3.5-inch, with its hard shell, could be considered floppy. Rigid would be more like it.) The earliest memory of a floppy disk I have is from playing Pac-Man at a neighbor’s house in the early 1980s. It’s all a blur now, but the act of taking the floppy out of its sleeve, sliding it into the drive, and then rotating the lever to close the drive is something that I will always remember. Perhaps it is the sense of anticipation when preparing to load a game, or perhaps it is the rhythmic whirring and robotic sound of the drive as the floppy is being accessed. There’s just something special about the whole process.

After Pac-Man, it wouldn’t be until 1989 that I encountered floppies again. In middle school, we used Apple IIe computers to learn BASIC and LogoWriter, saving our programs on floppies. It was the first time I ever kept my own floppies. I treasured and protected them, write-protected them with the little black stickers, kept them in their own hard case and took the case with me everywhere, and took the “never touch media” warning printed on the sleeves to heart. I was a little pudgy middle-school kid carrying around a gray plastic 5.25-inch floppy case all over the place while other kids were listening to New Kids on the Block and starting to discover that the opposite sex wasn’t so disgusting after all. No wonder I got picked on all the time!

In 1991, when it came time for my family to purchase our own computer, I badly wanted an Apple IIe, but my mother and aunt had a different idea. We purchased a PC instead of an Apple, and I hated it. It came with two different types of floppy drive, a 5.25-inch and a 3.5-inch, and it would not read Apple disks. It was fun copying files from floppy drive to floppy drive, though. The activity lights on both would light up, one drive would click as it read data, and the other would clack as it wrote data. On every boot-up, the 5.25” drive would do a seek, the 3.5” drive would do a seek, and then the PC speaker would beep. It became a boot-up musical ritual that I would sing along to every time I turned on the computer. I quickly forgot about the Apple II.

In the beginning, we still mostly used 5.25” disks. The 3.5-inchers were smaller and more convenient, more durable, and could store more data, but they were still relatively expensive, similar to how BD-Rs today are more expensive than DVD-Rs. To save money, we even figured out how to increase the capacity of a 5.25” floppy by cutting a notch so that the reverse side could be written to. Alas, as with all newly introduced computer components, after a while the price of 3.5-inch disks fell and they became massively adopted, sending the 5.25s into extinction.

A few days ago I sent the rest of my own 5.25” disks into extinction. I copied the data off of them, photographed them, and then took them to a shredder service that specializes in recycling computer components. As I watched the worker grab my 20-year-old floppies and throw them into the shredder, a feeling of sadness came over me. It pained me to see my old floppy disks being torn apart into hundreds of little pieces. My mind flashed back to those days in the early 90s when I had first written data to those disks, when I was growing up and honing my computer skills on that old DOS 3.3 386 with two floppy drives that seeked on every boot-up. Childhood. Adolescence. Floppy disks. I will always cherish and look at those days with floppy disk nostalgia.

Further reading:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *