Accessing old files

Want to get at those long-lost masterpieces you created on your word processor in the 1980s and 90s? Here’s how.

Floppy formats

First of all, we need to consider where the files are presently located. If they’re on the hard disk of an old computer then skip to the Old Equipment heading below. If they’re on a floppy disk then the task is somewhat trickier. Three sizes of floppy were in everyday use up until a decade or two ago: 3.5 inch, 5.25 inch, and Amstrad’s proprietary 3 inch format.

3.5 inch disks are the hard plastic ones that most PCs used until relatively recently. Indeed, if the computer you use everyday is more than a few years old it may already have a 3.5in drive, in which you’ve everything you need to at least grab the files, although file formats may still be an issue – see Reading The Files below.

5.25 inch disks were the larger and older kind of disk that were literally “floppy” (although you should never bend one!). Amstrad’s 3 inch format was essentially a smaller clone of the 3.5 inch disk technology and was used in pretty much all its range of computers from the late 1980s onwards, including the hugely popular PCW range of cheap word processors.

Amstrad_PCW_8512

If your files are on 3.5 inch disks then there’s great news – external 3.5 inch drives with a USB connector are available relatively cheaply from just about everywhere, such as on eBay. These are plug-and-play so once attached you just open the Computer view of file manager and double-click the A: drive entry. You should subsequently copy the files to your hard disk ASAP because the old floppies may prove unreliable.

Little and larger

There’s less happy news if your files are on the other two formats. To read 5.25 inch disks you’ll need to take a DIY approach of buying a 5.25 inch disk USB controller card (for example, http://goo.gl/r1sRVf) and then tracking down a second-hand 5.25 inch drive from somewhere like eBay (you might also need to buy a drive ribbon cable too). If you’ve ever poked around inside a PC this shouldn’t present too many issues outside of potential time and cost but for people to whom this entire paragraph is gobbledegook then this is clearly out of bounds.

A logical solution might seem to be to get hold of a working old PC that has a 5.25 inch drive in order to read the files – and you will find examples on eBay – but then you still have the issue of getting the files off that PC’s hard disk. Old operating systems from that era (such as DOS, or Windows 3.1/3.11) are simply incompatible with network file sharing on modern. The easiest route might be to use one of the outfits offering their services via Google who’ll let you post the disks to them, and convert them. Do shop around though, because prices vary.

As for Amstrad’s 3 inch disk format, well, things get even more complicated. There’s simply no way of easily interfacing a 3 inch drive with a modern PC. There don’t even seem to be that many old 3 inch drives available on eBay, perhaps because the drives were notorious for breaking (let’s be honest – Amstrad stuff was never built to last). The only real choice is again to post your disks off to one of the handful of conversion outfits who’ll convert your files to modern format. Just Google for “Amstrad PCW disk conversion.”

Old equipment

If your files are on a computer’s hard disk and you still have that computer AND it still works, then there’s a bit more hope. However, it all depends on the age of the computer and which version of Windows it runs.

If the computer runs Windows 98 or Me then there’s a chance it’ll also have USB ports, in which case you can simply attach a USB memory stick and copy the files off the computer in that way. You will probably need to use an older and smaller USB memory stick of less than 4GB. You might also need to install some driver software, as explained here: http://goo.gl/4xikl5.

If the computer is a little older and runs Windows 95 – but does have USB ports – then you might again be able to use a USB memory stick although few versions of Windows 95 were able to support USB. Microsoft explains more in an old technical note: https://goo.gl/qjD3Xj.

If the Windows 95 computer has no USB ports, you might be able to transfer files off it if it has an Ethernet port via network file sharing. This will involve connecting the computer to your Internet router via an Ethernet cable (again, hit eBay if you don’t have one of these although you may find one in the box your broadband router came in). Configuring file sharing on Windows 95 is outside the scope of this article but here are some brief technical notes: you must do so over TCP/IP and not NetBeui, as explained in guides like this one: http://goo.gl/wNglbC. You’ll also need to reconfigure your current computer, as described here: http://goo.gl/2C0B1L

Copy cat

If there’s no USB ports, and no Ethernet/network port, then the best policy is get hold of some blank 3.5 inch floppies (again, eBay is your friend!) and copy the files onto them using the computer’s built-in disk drive, before using a USB floppy drive with your current computer as discussed earlier.

If the old computer’s running Windows 3.1 or 3.11 (also known as Windows for Workgroups) then you’re in the same situation as with Windows 95. There’ll definitely be no USB ports, however, and the network file sharing technology is completely incompatible with modern computers. Therefore copying old files to a floppy disk is the most expedient solution.

If you still have the old computer hanging around, and its printer too, then a (very) time-consuming option is to print off your old work and scan it in via a flatbed scanner and then use optical character recognition software (see, for example, http://goo.gl/2hxSNV). If the printer requires a ribbon or ink cartridge then just Google – there are several online shops that cater for even the most obscure old models. Note that optical character recognition works only with print, and not handwriting.

Reading the files

So you’ve managed to get the files off your floppies and/or your old computers. You try to load them into your word processor and – nope. The old files are in an incompatible file format.

The first possible solution is to try opening the files in alternative word processors that have better support for older files. If you haven’t already, try using the free LibreOffice (www.libreoffice.org), or AbiWord (www.abiword.org). If you do manage to open the file, save it out the again but this time choose Word format from the File Type listing in the Save As dialog box.

If the old files are in Microsoft Works format then you might try using the free converter from Microsoft: https://goo.gl/vaSGyH. Additionally, there’s a handful of websites that’ll try and convert old word processing files, including files from the popular Lotus Word Pro that came pre-installed on many computers back in the 1990s. Try www.fileminx.com, for example, or just Google for “file converter” and add-in the name of the word processor you formerly used.

If none of these work then the trick is to get hold of a copy of either the word processor you used back in the old days, or a competitor from the same era that will probably include support for that type of file. You can then use the old word processor to open the file and then save into a more compatible file format, such as plain text (.txt) or RTF (rich text format; .rtf).

Once again, Google might help find this software – it’s referred to as Abandonware – but running it on a modern PC might again present compatibility problems. If your PC runs Windows 7 you might be able to use Windows XP Mode, by which you can run the older Windows XP in a program window and the install the old software on top of it. Microsoft explains more here: http://goo.gl/pLZGE3. Another option is to download an old Windows 95 virtual machine, which is somewhat more complicated and requires you to download the free VMWare Player app (https://goo.gl/65JN2v) and then a readymade Win95 virtual machine (for example, https://goo.gl/qeGIuP). Note you’ll need 7-Zip also installed to decompress the virtual machine archive file: www.7-zip.org. You should be able to drag and drop files on top of the virtual machine window to transfer them there.

Mac users might try the WPMacApp, that emulates an old 1990s Mac complete with WordPerfect: http://goo.gl/OQBByZ.

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