The Null Device

Dead media

Web browser innovator, message-threading guru and nightclub proprietor Jamie Zawinski on the difficulties of reading data from obsolete computers; more specifically, the near-impossibility of transferring data from an original 128k Macintosh to anything made today (the 128k Mac's 400K floppies are not readable by any reasonably recent machines, the machine has no Ethernet or SCSI, and AppleTalk is only an option of the machine has a driver for it). (via Before I Forget)

It's alarming to think how much data from less than 20 years ago exists perfectly well, in a well-understood digital format, and yet is marooned on obsolete hardware (or system software) with little way of getting off it. Thus, so much data faces extinction due to the shifting of technologies. It's not just reading old programs off 400K Macintosh disks either; try reading an old Microsoft Word 1.0 document you wrote ~20 years ago, for example.

There are 10 comments on "Dead media":

Posted by: gjw Mon Mar 17 12:33:52 2003

They could use a serial cable transfer of some kind, couldn't they? ZMODEM transfer or something? It is a problem though - thinking of all the completely non-standard 3" disks my Amstrad took. And I heard something about the BBC producing some massive cultural atlas on laser discs back in the early 1980s - a recovery project was launched recently to actually read back the data!

Posted by: Alex http:// Mon Mar 17 14:18:18 2003

Surely there is some way to take an 'image' of the data on the discs, in a process analagous to 'scanning' LPs and tranlsating the image to audio?

Otherwise, what about the SID chip midi device phenomenon -- if there's a demand, someone will build a drive that pretends it's a modem, or something like that. hard coded. er

Posted by: acb Mon Mar 17 14:24:43 2003

One could make a universal floppy drive which is entirely software controlled and can read anything that can be fed into it. Though most PCs expect a simple drive which is hardwired to only read one thing.

The ideal dead media recovery kit would include (a) a set of programmable universal disk drives for various media sizes, (b) a modular, well-designed software system for deciphering file formats (to, say, XML or somesuch), and (c) software for emulating vintage hardware, interfacing both with interface hardware (such as universal disk drives) and the host system (not all that much different from things like the C64/Apple/arcade emulators now around).

Posted by: Bowie Mon Mar 17 22:14:37 2003

This sort of problem is something I'm very interested in, particularly when looking into the future. That is, digitising "hard" history like audio, video, images etc. so they'll remain in fairly decent quality for years to come. What always comes up is how to store the digital data so we can read it in the future. Previously the best option was paper. Print out the bits onto good quality paper with good quality ink and that paper will still be readable 1000 years from now. Not too good a transfer rate though. P2P is the next best option. Get as many copies out there on different computers as possible.

Posted by: gjw Mon Mar 17 22:46:58 2003

Magnetic tape mightn't be a bad idea. It's a pretty standard set up - most operating systems have drivers to write to tape, and if not they're pretty simple devices. The mechanical simplicity of it means you should always be able to read the tape back on something - the width / speed of the tape is the only varying factor. Just write the raw data (TAR file!) to it, with a lot of error correction bits.

Posted by: gjw Mon Mar 17 22:47:54 2003

In fact I understand you can get software for PCs that reads back Amstrad / Commodore 64 programs that were written to cassette tape back in the day.

Posted by: acb Tue Mar 18 02:14:54 2003

I downloaded a program for parsing .WAV files of Commodore 64 tapes, but have been unable to get any results out of it. Given the cheap nature of C64 tape drives, it shouldn't be too dependent on hi-fi equipment (I was using a $30 secondhand tape deck and a PC sound card, btw).

Besides which, doesn't magnetic tape deteriorate within decades?

Posted by: Bowie Tue Mar 18 02:25:23 2003

Audio quality of a cassette tape is starting to go even after 10 years. I have twenty year old tapes that still play but the sound is pretty messed up, and some that have crumbled to dust, and a select few that are OK enough but very quickly go. And that's only 1983.

I would have thought magnetic tape would have been the easiest to reverse engineer and pull data off in the future. Just mount the tape onto a new wheel and read what you get. Something like a 5.25" floppy would be harder if you didn't have a 5.25" drive.

Posted by: acb Tue Mar 18 02:41:57 2003

I saw it cited that the best known digital archival medium is CDs. Not CD-Rs (the dyes fade over time), but actual pressed CDs.

Mind you, poorly made CDs tend to delaminate or corrode and become unreadable.

Posted by: Kurt http:// Mon Jul 12 20:19:40 2004

Hi! I have a collection of original Commodore 64 tapes.I just wonder, how should them be stored and/or treated to minimize deterioration? thinking of temperature and humidity? and if I have to clean the tapes, how would I do that?

Thank's alot. :) Kurt Norway

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