By Jason Snell
January 12, 2018 3:31 PM PT
Reading disks from 1988 in 2018
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
I used an Apple IIe computer throughout high school and into my second year in college, before I bought a Mac SE. That following summer I sold the Apple IIe and everything that came with it—the monitor, floppy drives, and dot-matrix printer—and pocketed the cash1. What I was left with were two boxes containing two dozen 5.25-inch floppy disks.
I could’ve thrown the disks away—I had already transferred all the files I cared about to the Mac2. But for some reason I saved them instead. And the two dozen floppy disks stayed in two battered boxes for the next 27 years.
Every now and then I would find them in whatever storage box they’d been hidden in, as they moved from the house I grew up in to various apartments and ultimately the house I’ve lived in for the last couple of decades. In 2001 my curiosity and a feeling of nostalgia got the best of me and I decided I’d try to copy them so I could run them in an emulator on my Mac, so I bought an Apple IIc on eBay3 and an Apple IIc to Mac Serial connector cable.
Whatever motivation I had to excavate my late-80s life faded with the 9/11 attacks and vanished a couple months later when my daughter was born. The IIc went in the box with the disks and there they sat until December, when I decided I was going to finally finish this project, once and for all—if the disks hadn’t rotted in the intervening 16 years.
In the intervening decade and a half, the Mac Serial-to-USB adapter I had counted on (I have two of them!) fell out of compatibility; the most recent driver I could find for it was compatible with Snow Leopard. I actually pulled a Core 2 Duo Mac Mini off a shelf and installed Snow Leopard on it, but plugging in the adapters only resulted in a kernel panic.
Fortunately, there are sites out there to help people like me with problems like these. I ended up buying a couple of cables from RetroFloppy, one that connects to the Apple IIc modem port and has a standard PC serial plug on the other end, and a PC serial-to-USB adapter that has modern Mac drivers.4
Since I was placing an order with RetroFloppy, I also bought a copy of David Schmidt’s ADTPro for Apple II (on 5.25-inch floppy disk!) because I needed a copy of it anyway. ADTPro—short for Apple Disk Transfer ProDOS—is the go-to software for copying files off of an Apple II.
The next step in the process was figuring out how to see anything on my Apple IIc. That computer’s stock video-out port is a single composite RCA plug, the kind you’d plug into any TV or VCR back in the day. Unfortunately, since 2001 almost every single video device in my life has been replaced with one that doesn’t offer composite video ports. I was concerned that I was going to have to buy an adapter, but then I realized that I still have my old digital camcorder, which has composite ports and which I have used (via a FireWire daisy chain of epic proportions5) to convert old VHS tapes from an old VCR into digital files on my Mac. Yes, I ended up booting an Apple IIc and using a Sony Digital 8 camcorder as the external monitor.
With that all set, it was time to run ADTPro on my Mac. It’s a Java app and therefore not the prettiest thing, but it did the job—I was able to connect to the Apple IIc and boot into ADTPro, at which point I could simply start inserting disks one by one and watch as they were transferred (at a surprisingly fast rate—less than a minute) across the serial cable to my Mac, where they were saved as 143K Apple II disk image files. Talk about anticlimactic. Imaging took less than an hour. There were no bad disks, nearly 30 years later.
After the imaging was done, it was time to read them on my Mac using Gerard Putter’s Virtual II emulator. The disks with DOS or ProDOS on them booted just fine. There’s even a Quick Look extension for Virtual II that would display the contents of a disk in the Finder when I pressed the space bar. How civilized.
Then came a new problem: How do you get text files out of a virtual computer? The answer seems to be the same as with a real one: you “print” the files, and Virtual II’s virtual printer can generate a PDF or put text on the clipboard. But to print a text file, you need to load it into a program. Fortunately, I found a disk image of my preferred word processor—Apple Writer II—in an archive of old Apple II software on the web, and was able to boot up that program and load all the disks that I had formatted in the ProDOS disk format.
But a lot of my disks were in DOS 3.3 format instead, and couldn’t be read. How to get the files off of there? Apparently there exists no bootable disk image of Apple Writer II for DOS 3.3 out there—every single version I found failed to boot on Virtual II—so I had to try some other techniques.
One thing I tried was to create a “bootstrap” version of the disk converter utility, ADT, on my Apple IIc. This didn’t end up proving a fruitful avenue—turns out my own copy of Apple Writer II for DOS 3.3 was also impossible to copy to a disk image—but it did provide the most hilarious moment of this entire project.
You might be asking yourself, how would this project have gone if I hadn’t given in and ordered that floppy disk containing ADT Pro from RetroFloppy? The answer is that you can bootstrap an Apple II from nothing but a serial connection back to your Mac. You type a couple of commands into the Apple II, and then ADT Pro proceeds to use the serial connection to type in an entire program in machine code that you can run to begin transferring files or even initialize a bootable disk. Bananas.
In the end, how did I get the text files off of the DOS 3.3 disks? I tried to remember how I did it when I made the switch to ProDOS back in the day, and with a couple of Google searches the answer was revealed: There was a disk utility, Copy II Plus, that would transfer files from a DOS 3.3 disk to a ProDOS disk6. So I downloaded the right Copy II Plus disk image from a web archive of Apple II software, inserted a virtual blank disk into my drive, and transferred all those files from DOS 3.3 to ProDOS—retracing steps I had taken in 1988.
One final thing I wanted to do was run the my old computer bulletin board system, which signed off for the last time when I went to college in the fall of 1988. I still had the disks. Unfortunately, they just don’t work—the BBS program was built to work with a specific modem, the Apple-Cat II, that Virtual II can’t emulate. Without that modem, the BBS wouldn’t run.
Fortunately, all of its data files were simply saved on the floppies as text files—so I could read the contents of the BBS, but not actually run it. In any event, I posted my findings to my Facebook page and that led to an impromptu reunion of the people who were on that BBS 30 years ago, many of whom I’m friends with on Facebook today. (The contents of the BBS itself? Nothing special or memorable—the files are all basically Twitter posts made a couple of decades before Twitter existed.)
As for those text files that I had saved for 30 years, and plotted to revive since 2001? It turns out the journey, through old computers and transfer cables and disk images, was the true reward. Nobody needs to see the term papers they wrote in high school 30 years after the fact. I did discover some of the earliest short stories I wrote, which were more terrible than I’d even imagined.
Most distressing was all the stuff I’d written that I have absolutely no memory of. The real lesson of my spelunking through my disks from the 1980s is that out of the dozens and dozens of essays and stories that I wrote back then, I only really remember a handful of them today. The rest faded from view, largely because they were irrelevant and deserved to fade from view. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little sobering to be shown a clear snapshot of my life in 1988 and fail to recognize a huge amount of it.
Am I glad I did this project? I am. It was a huge amount of fun to revisit an era of computing that I just don’t think about very often. These were the days when you booted off a disk, loaded the program on the disk, and then took the disk out of the drive—because once the program was in memory, you didn’t need the program disk anymore!
From the perspective of 2018 I’m also not impressed with the user interfaces of the 80s. To load a new file into Apple Writer, I have to type control-N (to make a “new” editor without the previously loaded file), type “y” to confirm and hit return, then type control-L, and then type the filename of the file I wish to load—including its volume name. If I want to see a directory listing of a disk, that’s a different command nested in a list of menus based on a different keyboard shortcut.
Ugh. No thank you. Nostalgia is great, but progress is greater.
- I kind of regret not keeping it, but can’t really picture myself hauling that thing around for all these years. ↩
- I bought a 3.5-inch drive for my Apple II, and I could copy files off of that disk and onto my Mac’s hard drive with an Apple-built transfer utility. ↩
- So far as I can tell from an etching on the side, it was originally owned by NCTRC. ↩
Took some Googling to realize I needed to copy a couple of Java drivers to
/Library/Java/Extensionsto get it to work. ↩
- Sony iLink to FireWire 400 to FireWire 800 to Thunderbolt to Thunderbolt 3. It works! ↩
- Did you know that the latest version of ProDOS for the Apple II was released in 2016? What an amazing story. ↩
If you appreciate articles like this one, support us by becoming a Six Colors subscriber. Subscribers get access to an exclusive podcast, members-only stories, and a special community.