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Did the laptop you got come at least with a windows XP cd? If so boot the laptop off of that and try to install Windows XP and see if it goes thru. Just make sure during the installation you tell it to delete the partitions first and then let it go thru that way you know for sure the hard drive is clean at that point.
Take a can or air and blow a little bit into the drive to make sure dust is not in there. Then use good known floppy disks to see if it reads at that point. If it still doesn't read then the floppy drive is bad and will need to be replaced.
i suspect you need both because the cd is not a bootable one. download a win 98 boot disk from www.bootdisks.com it will allow you to boot to dos.... then you change to the cd rom drive letter.. usually D: ... tho sometimes even X: and then type setup... that should start the restore.
Does it start as soon as you turn it on, or only when it's booted all the way up?
It sounds to me like a drive going out. Probably not the A: drive (by that I assume you mean a floppy drive), as those only turn when a disk is inserted. I'd guess it's the hard drive. However, that is only a guess - I can't give you more without more information. Regardless, if you don't feel comfortable opening the case, you'll have to take it to someone who does. Any experienced tech should be able to listen to it, and if it is the hard drive they will know that just from the sound.