Floptical Disks

A 3M floptical disk with 21mb capacity

Same disk shown in the ‘locked’ position (ie read-only). My memory jog was ‘if you can see through it, you can’t write to it’

Same disk showing reverse side. Identical to a standard floppy disk.

An original disk from Insite, the makers of the Floptical drive.

Back in the time when disks came in 360K and 1.2mb 5.25 inch disks, and 720K and 1.44mb 3.5 inch disks, the arrival of the Floptical disk in 1992 or thereabouts with a (massive) 21mb capacity was Heaven-Sent. With the ability to also read and write 720K and 1.44mb floppies, the Floptical drive was a very flexible backup mechanism. A drawback was the need to install a special controller card. While it was a SCSI -based card you couldn’t attach the Floptical drive to a normal SCSI adapter. (I see elsewhere on the Web that at least under Unix and on the Mac you could use a SCSI-1 adapter, but since the format routine was in ROM on the controller card, this would have some limitations)

I forget the exact price of the drives (around $900 AUD) and I can’t find my sole remaining example at the moment (more photos when it turns up), but the disks were of order $70 AUD each for early ones. I was in Australia at that time. I still have a box of about 30, so it was a sizable investment.

As can be seen from the hand-written labels opposite, the Floptical disks were useful for backing up original disks, which being floppy-based had a habit of dying. We get spoilt today with CD and DVD technology which is relatively failure-proof once written to successfully.

With big hard drives now there is little need to use an ‘original’ disk once the software is loaded. In the days not too long before the Floptical drive it was normal to have a 2-floppy system with the program disk in one drive and the data disk in the other. The system was ‘booted’ with a system disk, which was then swapped for the program disk. The floppy disks got a hard time and frequently failed, so it was important to have backup copies.

Note the ‘Low Level Formatted’ tag on the Insite disk. Again from memory, you couldn’t just format these disks, there was a BIOS routine that had to be invoked to do that. You could clear them off by deleting all the files. The controller card showed up in ROM-space (this was all DOS-based of course), so invoking a routine was simple enough but my memory fails me for the exact details. It was something like going back to DOS, invoking a program, then typing G=400. Might have to haul out an old DOS manual....

In the close-up shot you will see a hand-written “F” on the disks - my way to tell myself the disk had been formatted, a 30-minute process.

The Floptical disk was not a long-term success in that it disappeared after only a year or so. Later (1996) a very similar technology, the LS120 drive with 120mb capacity and attaching to the IDE connector arrived on the scene and for obvious reasons stole the limelight for an equally short period until it in turn was replaced by the Iomega Zip drive, which was a (very) commercial success. While the Zip drive was only 100mb, the first version was external, portable and came with drivers that were easily loaded. Yesterday’s flash-drive.