52 Floppy Pickup

On the latest Accidental Tech Podcast, John reminisced about the early days of the Mac, when a single 3.5″ floppy disk drive was typically used not only to boot a Mac, but also to run any applications, and to save any user data. He described the painstaking process of needing to insert a different disk whenever programs required access to specific executable code or data. Depending on the complexity of a workflow, you might be prompted to swap disks once, twice, or potentially dozens of times.

The conversation reminded me of one of my first jobs at Apple. I was hired to work as a QA tester with the engineering team that shipped Mac OS system software updates. The first release I worked on was Mac OS 7.5, which was released in 1994. By this time hard drives had become commonplace and the kind of floppy-swapping John described had become a lot less common for most users. But when it came to installing new software onto a Mac, some amount of removable media juggling was usually required.

Typically at that time, major OS updates were installed from CD-ROM discs. The system used the same basic strategy: it would eject one disc and prompt you to insert another, until the installation process was completed. It was a little tedious, but because CD-ROM discs had a massively higher capacity than floppy disks, it usually only required a few swaps.

One day during the lead up to finishing System 7.5, my boss brought a massive box full of floppy disks into the lab I worked in. The System 7.5 update was remarkably backward compatible, and supported computers as old as the Macintosh Plus and SE, which did not include a CD-ROM drive. In fact they did not even support the relatively higher density 1.4MB floppy disks of the era. That massive box was the System 7.5 installer, split across 50 or so (as best as I can recall) 800K floppy disks. I was supposed to make sure it worked.

Another thing John recalled on the show was how some folks got amazingly good at floppy-swapping process, developing a muscle memory for fluidly withdrawing and inserting disks on command. Suffice to say, after testing that 50-floppy install process more than a couple times, my muscle memory was pretty darned good.