February 29th, 2016

Hard Stare

Floppies and hard disks and ROMs, oh my! Or why early micros couldn't boot from HD

In lieu of real content, a repurposed FB comment, 'cos I thought it stood alone fairly well. I'm meant to be writing about containers and the FB comment was a displacement activity.

The first single-user computers started to appear in the mid-1970s, such as the MITS Altair. These had no storage at all in their most minimal form -- you entered code into their few hundreds of bytes of memory (not MB, not kB, just 128 bytes or so.)

One of the things that was radical is that they had a microprocessor: the CPU was a single chip. Before that, processors were constructed from lots of components, e.g. the KENBAK-1.

A single-user desktop computer with a microprocessor was called a microcomputer.

So, in the mid- to late-1970s, hard disks were *extremely* expensive -- thousands of $/£, more than the computer itself. So nobody fitted them to microcomputers.

Even floppy drives were quite expensive. They'd double the price of the computer. So the first mass-produced "micros" saved to audio tape cassette. No disk drive, no disk controller -- it was left out to save costs.

If the machine was modular enough, you could add a floppy disk controller later, and plug a floppy drive into that.

With only tape to load and save from, working at 1200 bits per second or so, even small programs of a few kB took minutes to load. So the core software was built into a permanent memory chip in the computer, called a ROM. The computer didn't boot: you turned it on, and it started running the code in the ROM. No loading stage necessary, but you couldn't update or change it without swapping chips. Still, it was really tiny, so bugs were not a huge problem.

Later, by a few years into the 1980s, floppy drives fell in price so that high-end micros had them as a common accessory, although still not built in as standard for most.

But the core software was still on a ROM chip. They might have a facility to automatically run a program on a floppy, but you had to invoke a command to trigger it -- the computer couldn't tell when you inserted a diskette.

By the 16-bit era, the mid-1980s, 3.5" drives were cheap enough to bundle as standard. Now, the built-in software in the ROM just had to be complex enough to start the floppy drive and load the OS from there. Some machines still kept the whole OS in ROM though, such as the Atari ST and Acorn Archimedes. Others, like the Commodore Amiga, IBM PC & Apple Macintosh, loaded it from diskette.

Putting it on diskette was cheaper, it meant you could update it easily, or even replace it with alternative OSes -- or for games, do without an OS altogether and boot directly into the game.

But hard disks were still seriously expensive, and needed a separate hard disk controller to be fitted to the machine. Inexpensive home machines like the early or basic-model Amigas and STs didn't have one -- again, it was left out for cost-saving reasons.

On bigger machines with expansion slots, you could add a hard disk controller and it would have a ROM chip on it that added the ability to boot from a hard disk connected to the controller card. But if your machine was a closed box with no internal slots, it was often impossible to add such a controller, so you might get a machine which later in its life had a hard disk controller and drive added, but the ROMs couldn't be updated so it wasn't possible to boot from the hard disk.

But this was quite rare. The 2nd ever model of Mac, the Mac Plus, added SCSI ports, the PC was always modular, and the higher-end models of STs, Amigas and Archimedes had hard disk interfaces.

The phase of machines with HDs but booting from floppy was fairly brief and they weren't common.

If the on-board ROMs could be updated, replaced, or just supplemented with extra ones in the HD controller, you could add the ability to boot from HD. If the machine booted from floppy anyway, this wasn't so hard.

Which reminds me -- I am still looking for an add-on hard disk for an Amstrad PCW, if anyone knows of such a thing!