A Hard (Drive) Life

In late 2021, as GCCC worked to put on a belated 29th “Last” Chicago CoCoFEST!, a question arose about all of the storage of hardware and software items belonging to GCCC. Some were recent items destined for the cancelled 2020 show auction, some were for the upcoming 2021 show auction, some were items donated long ago and never auctioned, and still more were club owned items. I had no idea GCCC had accumulated so much stuff, but I felt it was important to do some cleaning and asked that folks storing items bring them to the show.

At the show, Tony Podraza and I quickly sorted through the myriad of totes (I bet there were 35 of them, in addition to items delivered the day before the show started) to sort out what was the club’s, what we auction, and what was junk. Tony and I focused attention on retaining paperwork (correspondence and newsletters from other clubs, historical GCCC materials, and materials for the hardware projects GCCC had sponsored), interesting software (things produced by the club, modified for the club, etc.), and a bit of hardware (I felt the club should retain a complete CoCo system to run a demo, BBS, or similar). The rest of the items were placed on the auction to allows others to enjoy (I saw no reason for the club to collect Game Paks or multiple copies of OS/9 and the related manuals).

On the hardware front, we found a club-owned (at least Tony were pretty sure) Burke and Burke XT-based HDD, 100% complete. Time grew short, so we packed it away after the show, but I always thought it would be nice to image the drive and get the data off it.

Sadly, I was not able to attend the 2022 show, but I did ask if there was an interested resource who could take the ST-251 MFM drive and attempt to image. Rick Ulland graciously volunteered to attempt, and diligently tried to read data off the unit, to no avail. We thank Rick for the attempt, as it was a long shot.

This Spring, as I packed the totes away at the end of the 2023 show, I saw the B&B HDD again and decided to take it home and see what I could accomplish. As I don’t know much about MFM technology, I asked on the Classic Computers Mailing List if anyone might be interested in helping me attempt to image the drive. I got a number of good responses and leads, but the best came from David Gesswein.

David, who some may know from his PDP8Online web page , has created an MFM reader/emulator, and he responded graciously offering to help me image the drive if possible. It took a bit of time, but I was able to ship the drive off this week, and he received it today.

As expected, the drive is in poor shape, with mis-aligned heads, which is why Rick was unsuccessful imaging the unit. But, David notes that he has had success manually “micro”-stepping the heads across the platters to overcome alignment issues. He notes he has more familiarity with 2 wire microstepping systems, where the Seagate ST-251 is a 5 wire unit, so he’s looking into how he might interface with this type of stepper motor.

But, he was able to pull a bit of data from the drive, ran the “strings” command on the resulting material, and rendered the following:

Exit to OS9
        Are you sure? (Y/N):
Disk Manager Tree, Version 1.10  

Chat procedure for access color bbs
Copyright 1989,1990 by Ezra Story

Brnout  Version 1.0
Copyright (c) 1991 By Keith Alphonso
Licenced to and distributed by COCOPRO!

I theorized the drive might hold a copy of a BBS installation, and there is a bit of evidence for that in the above data.

Obviously, there are no guarantees David will be successful at pulling more off the drive. But, I do appreciate David’s help in attempting an image, and I am hopeful more will be retrieved.