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How can I get data off of some very old 10MB and 20MB drives?


I was reading a post of yours on data recovery from dead drives and it
jogged my memory about three of my computers in storage. Long forgotten. These
are my computers from my legislative days in the 1980s. No telling what secrets
are contained on them. Two are 386 boxes, Gateway, both purchased in the
mid-80s and the other is a 486, a Dell from the early 90s that have data on
drives (MFM or RLL) that are 10MB, 20MB, respectively on the 386s and an
unknown capacity on the 486. The first Gateway I purchased I thought would
never fill up a 10 MB drive so about a year later when Gateway came out a
machine with a 20 MB drive, I figured I had to have that one as my older drive
was full. In those days, those were about $3,000 machines. So, suggestions on
trying to recover data from these drives if the machines will not boot? I don’t
believe the USB housing approach would work. Or would there be a way to do so
with modifications? I’m a long-time electronics hobbyist so if there’s a way to
modify it, I still have my welder soldering irons and a functional HeathKit
VTVM. Any issues with LCD monitors on them? Wondering if a low-resolution form
the old video cards will work if I can get the machines to boot?

In this excerpt from
Answercast #63
, I look at some easy methods for getting data off old hard

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Old computers

So let’s address that last one first. The LCD monitors will work just fine.
Things may look kind of fuzzy I suppose, but the display will be just fine. The
LCD monitors these days can still handle the old 640×480 I think it was.
That was the minimum resolution on some of the oldest machines – or actually
the maximum resolution on some of the really old machines.

So, LCDs? Sure, give it a try. You should be just fine.

Connecting to the hard drives

On the hard drives, what’s interesting is that even back then I believe,
the interface that was used for those hard drives to connect them to the
motherboard was still IDE. In fact, that’s when it was still called IDE, instead
of PATA (Parallel ATA) as opposed to SATA (Serial ATA).

So I would start by getting (from your local computer shop or Amazon or
wherever) what is essentially a USB connector without a box. They actually have
them. They’re usually multi-connected at the drive end. I have one in my

What’s interesting about it is: it’s a cable. It looks like a glorified cable with USB at one end and this kind of big black connector thingy at the other. On that connector thingy are IDE connectors and SATA connectors. What that means is that you simply take the drive out of your machine and (without putting that drive into a box of any sort) you connect up this cable and run the drive.

My guess is that if those drives are working, that approach will work just fine. And while you’re at it… that’s kind of a handy cable to have. It’s nice to not have to actually put a drive in a box if all you’re trying to do is recover some data from it.

So, I’ll try to make sure to put a link to an example of one of those
for this AnswerCast segment and you’ll be able to see what this really
is. But that’s the approach I would take.

I honestly believe that even those old huge 10MB and 20MB (and by huge, I
mean physically huge; they’re actually significantly thicker, if they’re the
ones I’m thinking of, than our current drives)… I would be really surprised if
those didn’t just plug in and work and allow you to copy off the data that
was stored on them. Or at least, run something like a secure delete; if in fact
you’re trying to delete some of those long forgotten secrets.

End of
Answercast #63
Back to – Audio Segment

Do this

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9 comments on “How can I get data off of some very old 10MB and 20MB drives?”

  1. I’ve done this dozens of time in the past.
    We must not forget that these old drives also have to be powered. So, the user still has to open his (or her) machine to find an unused molex power plug. Of course, this is not possible if you’re using a laptop.

    Don’t forget to place a piece of paper under the old drive to offset any chance of static transference from metal or fabric.

  2. @Pscowboy
    It was good that you mentioned the need for a power supply. Many USB hard drive cables come with power supplies. The cable in the ad Leo linked to in the article didn’t come with one, but there was an offer on that page for a SATA/PATA/IDE Drive to USB 2.0 Adapter Converter Cable for 2.5 / 3.5 Inch Hard Drive / Optical Drive with External AC which would do the trick.

  3. Related problem.

    I want to transfer off old drive – problem one of the pins in the parallel connector has been yanked loose from the driver board – don’t know were to solder it back.

    How to connect THAT HDD to computer.

  4. @ George

    A couple of things you can try. First, just plug the connector in and see what happens. It may very well work. The worst that could happen is you would get an I/O error of some sort. If this fails, get a good light and probably a magnifying glass. Figure out where the broken pin would plug in to your new connector and carefully push it in a little. Then carefully plug the connector on the back of your drive and hope the broken pin makes good contact with the place where it broke off (a vigorous cleaning with some contact cleaner wouldn’t hurt here). Failing these two attempts, you’re probably going to be sol – it would be pretty well impossible to solder that broken pin back onto the board.

  5. I’ve never done this so I don’t know how hard it is but I’ve read about others doing it. IF you can find an identical drive, same make, model, capacity and all, swap the driver board. You just might be in luck. Worth a try if the data is valuable.

  6. I’m older than most living programmers and recall buying pre-IDE drives with interfaces more akin to those on floppy disk. Mid 1980s.

    A quick search yielded the above link with photo and description of MFM and RLL drives. I had a Seagate ST-225.


  7. My first hard drive was 120 mb, so these drives must be at least 20 to 25 years old. Is there really a need to transfer the data that you haven’t looked at in 20 to 25 years?

    I’m with Ronny. Drill a few holes. Or take a hammer and bash the living daylights out of it. Or take out the screws to open it up and physically mangle the platters inside.


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