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Old 15th Mar 2024, 11:48 am   #1
PaulM
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Default Aston Caption Generator

I think that this may be the right place to post this - it's definitely a computer type problem! Mods please move if wrong.

At our Broadcast Engineering Museum we've recently installed an early 80s processor based Aston 3 TV Caption Generator. It uses a 3.5" floppy disk drive to store fonts and also completed captions. It's working pretty well. This series of kit marked the change from TV captions based on bits of cardboard and Letraset to computer generated. It changed one part of TV broadcasting forever, so it's important.

Aston was clever with font copyright and guarded the format and storage. Many years ago, I actually had to buy fonts from them on floppy but fortunately the disk is still OK and works. Going forward, this may not be the case and we really need to make a copy of the data and the disk.

That should be easy. No it isn't, it's not a DOS disk but some sort of (unknown) proprietary format. It may be something 'borrowed' from the small computer world or it could be an 'Aston special'. We don't know and can't find out.

We need a means to copy this floppy - an image of some sort, I guess - but how do we do it? Any thoughts, please?

Many thanks for any guidance.

Best regards,

Paul M
Broadcast Engineering Conservation Group
Broadcast Engineering Museum
www.becg.tv
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Old 15th Mar 2024, 11:57 am   #2
paulsherwin
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Default Re: Aston Caption Generator

Ask a Linux user in your group. It's reasonably easy to copy all the sectors of a floppy to a file using standard device files and the 'dd' command. You copy the file to a new floppy by reversing the procedure.

Obviously you do need a drive which is compatible with the floppy at the hardware level.
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Old 15th Mar 2024, 12:28 pm   #3
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Default Re: Aston Caption Generator

Thanks, Paul.

Yes, we had heard that Linux might work, but there's some scepticism about that approach. We have a USB floppy drive and we can give it a go on our Linux machine at the museum.

Aston reputedly made it very difficult to copy their font disks as there was real money to be made. I went down this road over 20 years ago and wound up paying them, despite the fact that it was for a BATC exhibition stand at IBC in the late 90s. I can't remember all the twists and turns from that far back, but I recall that nothing seemed to work.

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Old 15th Mar 2024, 12:43 pm   #4
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Default Re: Aston Caption Generator

Just a crazy thought but what about using a software recovery program to read the disc and save the data. It might produce something that is recognisable, or even be able to write it to another disk or storage media.

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Old 15th Mar 2024, 1:04 pm   #5
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Default Re: Aston Caption Generator

If you have a look in the /dev directory you'll see all sorts of odd floppy disk names reflecting different possible formats. You'll need to experiment.

If that doesn't work you'll need to investigate more exotic hardware based solutions like Greaseweazle.

I'm surprised another Aston enthusiast hasn't cracked this problem already. There must be loads of ex Aston engineers around - Astons were everywhere in the 80s.

Also, see this fairly comprehensive Wiki article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Floppy_disk_variants
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Old 15th Mar 2024, 1:17 pm   #6
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Default Re: Aston Caption Generator

If memory serves me right, there was a copy protection scheme based on the idea of 'weak bits' where some transitions, possibly a whole sector, were written with a less than optimal magnetising current. Obviously this relies on being able to change the magnetising current in software and may not be within the capabilities of end-user disk drives.

The principle was that the weak bits were not part of the useful data on the disk but the application which was being protected would read the weak bits and get some combination of CRC errors and just plain different results each time. Reading the disk with the Linux dd command should not endanger the data on the disk but might show errors and might also give different results each time. Linux will compare two files with the 'diff' command but its output is not very user friendly.

If you read the disk a few times and and all the files are identical it should give you some confidence that writing the file back to a new floppy should give you a usable backup.

I am sure someone will correct errors in my own memory!

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Old 15th Mar 2024, 1:43 pm   #7
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Default Re: Aston Caption Generator

Thanks for the information Roger!

Wow, that sounds devious, but from a commercial perspective I can see why they would do something like that.

The problem of Aston font disks has come up several times over the years, yet threads on this forum and others just peter out. Probably hitting this 'wall'.

We're keen to see a working Aston in long-term preservation because they were a quiet broadcasting revolution using <<computers>>. They sold huge quantities and were everywhere, so they must have done very well out of it.

You must load the fonts before you can create/store a caption and the stored caption doesn't store the font data used. Very 'clunky' by the standards of today, but as it's something of significance, it's worth persevering with. The hardware is all relatively simple, although quite a bit of it.

Ours is now working but this FD problem may scupper things long-term if we can't sort this one out. We have so many things to think about and progress at the museum and this is but one. Thus, trying not to spend too much time on the problem if we can help it!

There may be some more font disks out there that somebody has squirreled away

Best regards,

Paul M
www.becg.tv
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Old 15th Mar 2024, 1:57 pm   #8
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Default Re: Aston Caption Generator

What you need is someone with a Greaseweazle, which is a little widget for directly imaging floppy discs regardless of their format. The associated software can also help to figure out what the format actually is. Lots of people, including some I'm in touch with, are using them for preserving old computer software. I could ask around if you like.

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Old 16th Mar 2024, 5:24 pm   #9
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Default Re: Aston Caption Generator

Yes, I'm tempted to get a Greaseweazle as they are quite-cheap and I do know someone on here who's bought one (but not tried it yet), after previous recommendations (on other forums?). Although someone on here said they didn't get on too well with there's - maybe the User Interface and wanted a more-standard Solid-State filing system alternative like Goteks etc.

A protection system I encountered back in the 80's days of the BBC Computer, was that they'd either format one track as non-standard (Maybe not supported by the FDC) / different size sectors / sector numbers.
Or they didn't format a track at all, from an original erased disk with no initial formatting - So that it just read corrupt.
And they checked track / sectors to be in error.

So they might have simply done this, rather than trying to do something very low-level with the magnetics.

Back in the PC DOS days, there was a program called 'Anadisk' that would let you examine the format of each track of a disk. So that might let you see if the original disk does have any unformatted / special-format tracks.
Not sure if it ran under Windows or needed low-level direct h/w access (so needs an old PC with a proper uPD765 Compatible FDC IC) Or if there is a more-modern Windows version.

It would probably be good to swap to a Gotek drive, to eliminate need for disks that could be getting fragile / difficult to make backups-of due to the special format.
As these were designed for this purpose - But not sure if they can replicate special 'dodgy' tracks, even with upgraded 'FlashFloppy' firmware, rather than original f/w that was equipment specific.
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Old 16th Mar 2024, 5:30 pm   #10
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Default Re: Aston Caption Generator

I bought a Greaseweazle and have given up on it. The total lack of documentation coupled with my lack of knowledge of Python mean that I can't figure out how to use it

Anadisk (I remember it well) most certainly talked directly to the FDC chip. It needs a 765-a-like used in the standard PC manner.
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Old 16th Mar 2024, 5:30 pm   #11
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Default Re: Aston Caption Generator

Taken from my experience with the ST/Amiga which were the first machines I had with floppy drives, another dodge sometimes used was to record on track 81 of the disc and then look for that recorded track during load - of course disc copiers aimed at copying standard discs wouldn't look for or expect the extra track so it would be missing from the copy.
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Old 16th Mar 2024, 6:04 pm   #12
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Default Re: Aston Caption Generator

Although 3rd party / shareware etc. Disc copier programs often evolved to cope with added features.
On the Beeb, 'Basil' and RipOff9 were common ones, that whilst did cope with various non-standard systems they both had different things they didn't do. So I wrote my own one - in BASIC so was a bit slower - that tried to cope with everything (And not just give-up on an error that built-in manufacturer ones tended to do).
Although I'm not sure I ever managed 'Fleet Street Editor' - but do have the original, to maybe get to backup one day.

Some systems did write to the disk on installation, to stop it being used again.
With 'XOR' game sampler coverdisk only had so many plays and even XOR'd most of the program, decrypting itself when it ran! (Although that didn't take too much to insert a breakpoint and end up with the correct program).
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Old 16th Mar 2024, 6:05 pm   #13
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Default Re: Aston Caption Generator

We had an Atari 1040STE that was used for business many years ago and needed to transfer the data from an Atari database to Windows database software on an IBM 486 DX2-66. Both used the same size 1.44 floppy disk. However they did not access the disk in the same way. The method to transfer files was to first format the disk in the IBM and then re-format the disk in the Atari. Copy data to floppy from Atari and then read that data in the IBM. It actually did work but was painfully slow, as you couldn't copy much data to the floppy.

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Old 16th Mar 2024, 8:31 pm   #14
PaulM
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Default Re: Aston Caption Generator

Many thanks to all for the considered responses.
It's much appreciated.

To be honest, I'm not sure what to do about this.
It begins to look like Aston did indeed use anti-copy techniques and that would square with what I found out over 20 years ago when I first looked at the problem. It's not become any easier with the passage of time.

Greaseweazle looks like it might work - given a fair dose of time - and 'dd' looks like a potential tool too. It's stirred some memories that we did try 'dd' back in the late 90s on a Silicon Graphics Unix box (an Onyx) at my employers, but it didn't work. That could have been lack of knowledge or it could have been Aston's anti-copy technique(s), but I can't be sure.

The big problem is that it's likely to become a time vampire and I have to weigh up how much time can be spent on it. There's just so much to do at our new Broadcast Engineering Museum and there's only limited resources.

I will have to have a think about this

Thanks again for all the input.

Paul M
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Old 16th Mar 2024, 9:35 pm   #15
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Default Re: Aston Caption Generator

Quote:
Both used the same size 1.44 floppy disk.
Briefly aside: Before about TOS 1.02 Atari STs used a disc format which was similar to, but not the same as, DOS. From TOS 1.02 all STs formatted discs which were readable by PCs and could read discs formatted by PCs BUT no Atari ST or STe ever came factory fitted with a 1.44MB drive - early machines had single sided drives (360K) and later had double sided drives (720K) so the only way to transfer info between PCs and STs was to do it on a (typically) 720K disc.

Quote:
The method to transfer files was to first format the disk in the IBM and then re-format the disk in the Atari.
The first step probably wasn't necessary as the only real requirement was for the disc to be 720K formatted, which you did in the second step.
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Old 17th Mar 2024, 12:17 am   #16
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Default Re: Aston Caption Generator

I've used Omniflop to successfully read and write the 1.6mb disks for my GEM S2 keyboard, you do need a floppy drive connected to a proper floppy interface and it's custom driver as 99% of USB floppy drives are only set up for reading 720k or 1.44mb disks as that's what most people use them for.
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Old 17th Mar 2024, 10:30 am   #17
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Default Re: Aston Caption Generator

A very early machine you have there, followed by the 3b and then the 4 series. I will ask on a closed ex-tv staff forum if anyone has any knowledge or old font disks (unlikely, but I will ask).

Not sure if this old thread is useful (mention is made of a disk copier).

https://www.vintage-radio.net/forum/...ad.php?t=56420

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Old 17th Mar 2024, 10:59 am   #18
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Default Re: Aston Caption Generator

Quote:
What you need is someone with a Greaseweazle
It would be good if someone who has already been through the process would post a step by step 'walkthrough' for how to get one running, from beginning to end (in a specific 'How To' thread, perhaps made 'sticky') as it would be a useful resource to have here in this section.
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Old 17th Mar 2024, 12:15 pm   #19
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Default Re: Aston Caption Generator

Thanks Sirius, it was a long time back and I'd forgotton that it was 720K floppies. We did try writing data to the floppy with the Atari first but when that disk was read by the IBM after, it came up with unrecognised file format! Formatting the disk first in the IBM did work though, as long as the disk was reformatted in the Atari secondly. The more I think about it, I have a feeling that doing this lost some storage capacity on the actual floppy disk. We had several hundred Mb of data to transfer, so much so that the data had to be split for the database, which involved a lot of disks. This became a lot easier once the data was on the IBM's hdd. Jumping forward a few decades and that data has expanded so much that it would not now fit on the IBM's original 420Mb hdd. Indeed the data is now split into 3 sections and has around 100,000 listings.

Dave
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Old 18th Mar 2024, 1:03 am   #20
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Default Re: Aston Caption Generator

interesting bit on the aston company on the science museum website. Apparently the first use of an Aston, the prototype in fact, was for the BBC coverage of the 1974 general election.
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