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Running DOS off a vinyl record is wildly impractical but deeply hip

Photograph of a vinyl record labelled "DOS boot disk 64K 45ot/min' by Jozef Bogin.

In the PC gaming spirit of trying to run software on the daftest hardware you can put together, I present to you: a DOS boot disk that’s actually a vinyl record. With a record player hooked up to a PC and data encoded as a soundwave inscribed on custom-made 10″ vinyl, software developer Jozef Bogin has made a hip and wildly impractical storage medium to run DOS off. Why? Because he could, I guess. But now I need to know: can it run Doom?

“So this nutty little experiment connects a PC, or an IBM PC to be exact, directly onto a record player through an amplifier,” Bogin explains in his blog post. “There is a small ROM boot loader that operates the built-in ‘cassette interface’ of the PC (that was hardly ever used), invoked by the BIOS if all the other boot options fail, i.e. floppy disk and the hard drive. The turntable spins an analog recording of a small bootable read-only RAM drive, which is 64K in size. This contains a FreeDOS kernel, modified by me to cram it into the memory constraint, a micro variant of COMMAND.COM and a patched version of INTERLNK, that allows file transfer through a printer cable, modified to be runnable on FreeDOS. The bootloader reads the disk image from the audio recording through the cassette modem, loads it to memory and boots the system on it. Simple huh?”

Our younger readers might not know of the DOS boot disk, a tool which was invaluable for fixing a busted PC. If your system wouldn’t boot, plugging in one of these USB flash drives (wittily shaped like the ‘save file’ icon, because they could save your files) with their own wee self-contained OS would at least give access to basic tools for diagnosis and recovery. Our older readers, I trust, will have no desire to correct any lies I might have just told.

It’s probably best that they weren’t vinyl, given how often record sleeves were jumbled in our house. When disaster struck, I’d hate to end up trying to boot from Black Lace’s Superman.

If you want to get technical, Bogin’s post lists plenty of components and numbers. You can also download a FLAC sound file of the disk image to engrave onto a record yourself. It’s using FreeDOS, a free open-source OS which can run software made for MS-DOS (the DOS you probably know).

Computers like the ZX Spectrum used regular audio cassette tapes for data, and of course dialup internet was all sound, so I’m not surprised it works but I am charmed by the intricacy and pointlessness of using vinyl. This got me curious and oh, yes, wonderful, apparently people have learned you can play ZX Spectrum games from audio recordings of tapes on an iPod run through a cassette adaptor – the technological opposite of the vinyl boot disk?

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Alice O'Connor

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When not writing news, Alice may be found in the sea.

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