ST WLTM PC - GSOH Essential

As you might have gathered from the general theme of this blog, I’ve got a computer or two. Aside from my Mac, I’ve got an Atari STFM 520 and have recreated my old RISC PC on a Raspberry PI. As computers need software, this also means that I’ve got a lot of floppy disks kicking around (about 400, if we’re counting) and whilst having a recent trawl through the box, one disk caught my attention.

This beaten up disk is approximately 25 years old. I bought a couple of them when I started my computing course at college back in 1990 - and as you can see, it’s had a fair bit of use. Like school-kids graffiti their exercise books, us geeks did the same to our floppies. Even in those days, us computing students were creatures of good habit. I used to take three backups, in case one of the others failed.

It seems that this was a good strategy to take, for reasons I’ll go on to explain.

During the two years that I was on my computing course, these floppies were the repository for everything I did. Finding them prompted me to wonder if they’d also have my final-year project on them, which was a significant piece of work. I wrote a database system to manage a dating agency. Yes,, I was there before you. During the last few months of my course, I canvassed a large amount of students to provide their personal data so that the system had something to work on, something everyone thought was a bit of a giggle and were happy to provide. Those were the days when people gave personal data without giving a shit about how it was going to be stored, collected or what you did with it. I probably couldn’t get away with doing the same project now.

Anyway, I chucked the floppy into my Atari ST’s drive - and was surprised to see that it still worked. Not only did it work, but all the source code was still on there and was fully readable. The filestamps were dated May 1992 - 22 years old.

As the disk was fully readable, my initial thoughts were that I should salvage the contents first. Just because the contents had lasted 22 years wasn’t any guarantee that it would last any longer. I borrowed a USB floppy drive to recover the data. Unfortunately, modern-day computers aren’t really too bothered about reading 25 year old Atari ST 720K formatted floppies, so I had to fudge things slightly. I took a more “modern” 1.44MB PC disk, covered up the hole with a sticker (so that the PC thought it was a 720K disk) and formatted it to a DOS formatted 720K disk. Luckily, Atari had the sense to build the operating system in the ST to be able to read and write to DOS floppies, which allowed me to copy all the files on the original disk onto its newer counterpart.

I then hooked the USB drive up to my Mac and read off the files. Huzzah! I've got back all my source-code!

But wouldn’t it be good if you could take it a step further, compile the source-code and actually look at the data?

The code was written in JPI Modula-2, which is still my favourite programming language (if you have such a thing). It was a good development environment that’s unfortunately abandonware now - then again, that’s probably because nobody writes DOS programs any more. These days, compiling a DOS program in a PC development environment is only going to be made possible through the wonderful DOSBox, which lets you set up a folder on your hard-drive as a “Drive C” and lets you run DOS applications.

Within fifteen minutes of installing the development environment under DOSBox, I’d managed to compile and run the code.
There we are - running in fullscreen like it was 1992 again, with full mouse support too!

But what about the data? Well, there’s the personal data of 56 people in the system, which could store a maximum of 400. Such is the joy of having 64K to store data on a machine with 640K or memory. If this had ever taken off, I would’ve had to start using paging.

But what have I learnt from this exercise? I’ve learnt that software has become extremely flabby and inefficient. I wrote a full database system in just an 82K program. These days, a single DLL would be larger. I’ve learnt that a good backup strategy will always pay off - and I’ve learnt that despite being magnetic media, those floppies have already outlasted a whole pile of so-called “non-volatile” USB sticks. This floppy has moved house more times than I can remember, living in lofts, boxes, cold humid garages and hot sheds - and it’s still functional.

As an aside, if you’re one of those 56 who remember giving me that data, drop me a line. If you’re the passionate, fun-loving sort who’s in football, pubs and has a love of the occult but you’ve already found your match, drop me a line and I’ll delete you from my database. Happy
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