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486 Saved by a Penguin

The core components of my Dell 486 have apparently bit the dust, but its hard drives remain intact. I’ve known this for a couple of weeks now, but it’s been beyond me to do anything about it. The smaller, secondary hard drive mounted fine in one of my other DOS boxes about a week ago, but there was nothing really on it. Just one extremely old revision of a story a friend wrote, an aborted “Nitpicker’s Guide to Knight Rider” that I started writing in ‘95 and abruptly gave up on (and for good reason, because it really sucks), and a zipped install of Windows 3.11 that used to be installed before I upgraded to Windows 95.

The main boot drive, however, was trickier. It’s a 1083 MB Western Digital Caviar 3100, cost me a whopping $400 back in 1994, and required the OnTrack Dynamic Drive Overlay to be installed before my 486’s BIOS would read past 528 MB of its capacity. The DDO is what was giving me fits—no modern machine could interpret it. A DDO installs extraneous software to a disk’s boot sector which helps older BIOSes get past their cylinder limits and such. But this means that the partition table, data and everything else on the drive has to be moved further in on the disk than normal, and no operating system expects that. I tried stuffing the HD into about six different computers, none of which would read from it. They all saw it was there—each machine’s BIOS never failed to detect it—but getting at the data was hopeless.

When I get really desperate, I post on message boards asking for help. So that’s what I did. Some guy suggested that I try a Linux live CD, and specifically recommended Knoppix. It’s an experimental German distro of Linux that can be burned to a bootable CD and run directly from your CD-ROM drive, no installation necessary. It’s really quite amazing. Anyway this guy on the boards said that Knoppix was adept at auto-detecting and mounting just about any drive, so he suggested I give it a go. Here’s where my story really begins. Read on only if you are a nerd supreme.

Okay, so the first thing I had to do was FTP into one of the Knoppix mirrors and download the latest ISO. It’s about 700 MB. But thanks to a speedy pipe, and recently upgraded download caps a la Comcast, I managed to nab the whole thing in about fifteen minutes. Used Nero to burn it to a CD—my last CD-R, in fact, so I hoped nothing would get screwed up—then set about hooking up the old HD to Phobos, my vintage Pentium 2 (and resident DOS gaming box).

At first it wouldn’t boot off the CD. Hell, it wouldn’t boot off anything. Came to find out that the old hard drive needed to be jumpered as a slave device, else it would assume master—at least, that’s my guess, since when I hooked it up as a slave with no jumper installed, the machine flipped out. After fixing that situation, I managed to get the Knoppix CD to boot. But then it couldn’t find the Linux filesystem. Did a little research on the web and found a whole bunch of Knoppix boot command line parameters to try, and after adding the atapicd parameter, Knoppix booted up normally.

Knoppix runs the KDE GUI, and comes preinstalled with StarOffice, the Konquerer web browser, Mozilla 1.7.3, and a whole host of other tools and utilites that would be really fun to play with if I had more time to mess around. Before I got down to business, I played around with it a little bit. Visited my friends’ websites (and this site) with Konquerer to see how they’d show up, and was pleased to see they rendered exactly as intended. But then it was time to get to work. Knoppix had detected my 486’s hard drive as “hdb1,” and there was an icon on the desktop for it, so I clicked it.

The disk wouldn’t open. Knoppix complained that it was unable to automatically detect the filesystem type. It didn’t give me any hints on how to manually specify the filesystem, but somehow I didn’t think that would help. I opened the root command line shell and ran fdisk -l to list all available partitions. There, it had detected my old hard drive—and the filesystem was OnTrackDM6. Okay, that’s promising, since “OnTrack” is the company that made the Dynamic Drive Overlay I had installed back in ‘94. I then went to Google to see if I could dig up some clues on how to access a drive of this type.

Weirdly, almost all of the results I got back where in Chinese and a host of other languages I didn’t understand. Filtering the results by language, I discovered a post on a message board where somebody was trying to do the exact same thing as me. To my surprise, there was actually a useful reply too, which is something you rarely find—I mean, how many times have you looked for a solution to a problem on Google, found a million people asking the same question, but nobody who had solved it? But in this case there was a reply that was just the ticket: I had to add another parameter to the Knoppix boot command line to force the OS to add a 63-sector offset to its detection of the WD hard disk. The parameter: hdb=remap63. So I rebooted the machine and gave it a shot.

It worked.

There it was, every last bit of the 1 GB of data still left of the old hard drive. I opened up a shared folder on my wife’s notebook and copied the entire drive over to it, then back to Xerxes, my main box, where I began examining the goldmine of antiques. There was First Publisher, an old DOS desktop publishing program (ported from Mac, no less) that I used to use to write fake newspapers bitching about how much school sucked. Oh yeah, that’ll be a fun read. What else is there? Well, here’s a zipfile containing a bunch of really old stories I wrote, some of which I thought I’d never see again. In this corner, we’ve got directory of games including my original installation of Duke Nukem 3D, as well as the remnants of an Aliens-TC I was working on. There was lots more stuff, too. But the real gem was CompuServe Information Manager 2.0, my first gateway to the online world, and the place where I hung out night after night waiting for the imminent release of games like Rise of the Triad and Duke3D.

All of my messages, forum posts and emails from 1994-96 were archived in WinCIM’s “filing cabinet,” but how to get at them? They were all stored in a proprietary format. Well, as luck would have it, WinCIM is from the golden days of software engineering where entire applications were completely portable. I discovered this when, on a whim, I double-clicked the WinCIM executable, and the damn thing started. All I had to do was edit the program’s directory settings, and I had my entire filing cabinet back. Not only that, but I also had a fully-functional copy of SPRY Mosaic, the old web browser that was my first graphical gateway to the World Wide Web. Hee hee…I just tried looking at the Oddball Update in Mosaic. It doesn’t do Javascript, it doesn’t do CSS, it won’t load the images and it doesn’t even support the server redirects involved in shared hosting—I had to go to my web host’s domain and tack my username on the end of the URL to even bring the site up. Horrendous.

There are all sorts of goodies in my CompuServe filing cabinet, but the cream of the crop was the “Duke Nukem 3D” folder. It’s full of emails and forum messages I saved from the glory days leading up to the game’s shareware release (and, after that, the registered version ship date), including these historical updates from 3D Realms staffers. Actually, back then they were still Apogee, but, you know…semantics. Anyway, here’s a little tidbit of history from Apogee president Scott Miller that I had forgotten all about. This’ll take you back to 1996…

Click to embiggen

So that’s what I was thoroughly engrossed in last night. I’d like to add that right now I have a very deep gash healing on my left pinky finger thanks to the MURDEROUSLY SHARP heatsink on Phobos’ Pentium II processor, thank you very much Phobos, so it has not been a great weekend for bodily injury. But I have finally bested the spectre of the OnTrack Dynamic Disk Overlay, and it feels gooooooood.

Anyway, I’ve got a lot of work to do, so I’d best be off. Lots more to come later.