Bernoulli Box Fun

10:49 am Restoration

I’ve got an old Bernoulli Box (Model A210H). In the early ’80s, it was a popular way to store 10 megabytes of data in a removable cartridge format. This was also a very common IBM PC hard drive capacity back in those days, so it was great for backups. The cartridge is quite large, and comes in a protective cardboard box:


It’s been 20 years since I last turned it on. After plugging it in and flipping the switch, I smelled smoke so I quickly shut it off. I opened it up (6 screws) and removed a drive (4 screws) and pulled the controller card off of it (4 more screws). Then I noticed a blown tantalum capacitor, so I replaced it. Then I put it all back together again and powered it up with a bench supply (tantalum capacitors nearly always fail in a short circuit which makes things a little too exciting, so at least a bench supply lets me limit the current). More smoke, and another blown tantalum capacitor. I fixed it and put it back together, and powered it up with the regular power supply.

Closing the drive door made the motor spin up very sluggishly, so I checked and noticed the supply voltages were low. So I took apart the power supply and noticed a voltage adjustment potentiometer, so I set it back to the correct voltages and put everything back together. Now the motors seemed to run OK.


I tried putting in a disk and closing the door, but the drive made horrible noises. The LED on the drive blinked and the drive spun down, essentially rejecting the disk. I figured out how to open the protective window on the disk cartridge, and noticed that there were bits of sticky crap on the disk, mostly near the hub in the center. Taking apart the drive, I noticed a rubber ring that is supposed to push down on the disk in order to create some friction to spin it up. The rubber had decomposed into sticky stuff that was getting everywhere.

Bernoulli drives work on the Bernoulli principle. The disk itself is basically a floppy disk and is made from thin flexible plastic. There is a metal plate (the Bernoulli plate) that the disk spins up against. As it spins, the air in between the disk and the plate also spins and flies out due to centrifugal force. This creates a vacuum that pulls the disk very close to the plate, stiffening it so much that it acts like a hard disk platter. The drive head floats on an air cushion above the disk surface just like in a hard drive.

Unlike in a hard drive, if any dust particles get pulled into the gap, then the disk drops away from the head and nothing is damaged. The metal plate and the head both need to be very, very clean for the drive to work correctly. They are actually mounted upside down so that dust will fall away and not settle. A large fan on the back of the drive (with an attached air filter) provides positive air pressure in the case to help keep dust out. Before it enters the gap between the plate and the disk, the air is filtered a second time by a very small filter located behind the drive head.

In my drive, the head was filthy, the Bernoulli plate had some dust on it, and had a little oxidation on the back. I removed the oxidation with a file, with the idea that any patches of oxidation could produce problematic dust particles. I cleaned the working surface of the plate and the drive head with special no-lint wipes and 91% isopropyl alcohol. It’s very important not to disturb or distort the working surface, otherwise the disks will not spin right and could be damaged.

I also fabricated a replacement rubber ring and glued it onto the top of the drive spindle. In the photo below you can see the spindle with the new rubber ring. The drive head is the white thing running in the slot on the upper left. The cartridge enters from the right, and you can see some angular protrusions on the plate that open the cartridge and slide back the protective cover.


Fortunately I still had the controller card and the cable, but I had no driver software. I managed to find the DOS driver on some random website, and it actually matched up and worked! I tried it with a different disk and I was able to read back data. A few data errors occurred, but they were mostly soft errors that a couple of retries could fix. I was also able to clean up the original disk using more wipes and isopropyl alcohol. It worked fine although it had some bad sectors.

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