The Exatron Stringy Floppy
There were quite a few different storage products available back in the early days of the TRS‑80. In the long term, the floppy drive (and later the hard drive) completely beat out all of the competition. But back when floppy drives were considered too expensive by many, one of the most popular storage products for the TRS‑80 was the Exatron Stringy Floppy.
Founded in 1974 by Robert Howell, Exatron was a supplier of automated test equipment for manufacturers and OEMs. Exatron first demonstrated the S-100 version of the Stringy Floppy at the West Coast Computer Faire in March 1978. The TRS‑80 version was introduced in May 1979 at the San Francisco Computer Faire. An early price for a TRS‑80 starter kit (Stringy Floppy, wafers, and software) was $299.50. The Stringy Floppy provided an additional cost savings over floppy drives because it didn’t require an Expansion Interface. By 1982, the price for a single Stringy Floppy drive had come down to $99.50.
The Stringy Floppy was the only storage device other than floppy drives to achieve a degree of software support. Many programs, including games, were available on Stringy Floppy wafers. Some programs, such as Electric Pencil, had special Stringy Floppy versions. Jim Perry and later Spencer Hall wrote “@NEWS,” a column about the Stringy Floppy that ran in 80-U.S. Journal from the March/April 1980 issue to the January 1983 issue.
The Stringy Floppy transferred data at 7200 bits per second, over 14 times as fast as a Model I cassette. At that speed, a 16K file only took 24 seconds to load. The Stringy Floppy had the additional advantage over cassettes that the continuous loop wafers never needed to be rewound or positioned. The wafers were packaged in lengths which varied from 5 feet to 75 feet, with the wafer length determined the amount of storage. For instance, a 20 foot wafer could store 16K and a 50 foot wafer could store 48K.
Installing the Stringy Floppy on a Model I was as simple as plugging the unit directly into the Model I I/O bus. The Stringy Floppy routines were activated by typing:
I suspect that most Stringy Floppy users remember that sequence even today. The Stringy Floppy routines also debounced the Model I keyboard, although that useful feature was never really advertised.
The Stringy Floppy ROM occupied a 2K hole above the Level II BASIC ROM in the Model I memory map. Li-Chen Wang, who wrote the Tiny BASIC which served as the basic for the Level I ROM, also wrote the Stringy Floppy ROM.
The Model III had no equivalent hole in its memory map, so a more roundabout method had to be used. The Model III Stringy Floppy also had a cassette tape connection and could emulate a cassette recorder. The Stringy Floppy routines could be loaded into the upper 4K of memory using a special wafer. The commands used were similar:
The special wafer could then be replaced and the Stringy Floppy would otherwise work just like it would on a Model I.
The Stringy Floppy was controlled entirely through BASIC commands. The commands were prefixed by an @ symbol, and included @LOAD and @SAVE, which saved and loaded BASIC programs. The @SAVE command could also save machine language programs. Programs stored by the Stringy Floppy were numbered and multiple programs could be saved on one wafer. Up to seven Stringy Floppy units could be connected at one time, so the unit number could be specified in the commands.
The best description of how the Stringy Floppy worked I ever saw was contained in an Exatron advertisement:
The ESF uses a miniature tape cartridge (called a “wafer”) as a data
storage medium, about the size of a business card and 3/16th of an
inch thick. The tape used inside the wafer is a special Mylar based
Chrome Dioxide type, specially developed for digital applications.
Wafers are available in several lengths, 5 feet being the smallest and
capable of holding up to 4 thousand bytes of information – the
75-foot wafer is the largest available and can hold up to 64 thousand
bytes of data. The wafers contain a single reel of the special tape
connected as a continuous loop, the ends being spliced together with a
piece of reflective tape. In operation the ESF drive unit pulls the
tape from the center of the reel inside the wafer, causing the entire
reel to rotate. Thus, the tape automatically winds itself around the
outside of the reel at the same rate at which it is pulled from the
center. This process is similar to that found in an 8-track cartridge.
In 1983 as part of a reorganization, Exatron announced that it was changing its name to Entrepo (which means “storage” in French) and focusing on the many home computer companies that were interested in a low-cost storage device. It also shut down its mail-order business, although promising not to forget the estimated 5,000 to 10,000 TRS‑80 Stringy Floppy owners.
At that time, Jim Howell, son of the Exatron founder, took over the mail-order Stringy Floppy business with his company, A&J Micro Drive. In addition to the Model I Stringy Floppy, A&J Micro Drive also sold a type of Stringy Floppy drive for the Model 100. It continued to advertise drives well into 1986.
The Exatron company stopped manufacturing the Stringy Floppy many years ago, but is still a prominent manufacturer of test equipment and one of the few major TRS‑80 companies that still exists today.