NASA Engineers recording data on Ampex FR900s at Goldstone

My brother Alan, who works at and follows all things NASA sent me this link which I found particularly of interest since I once owned two Ampex FR-600 data recorders that came from NASA in Huntsville. Having resurrected an ancient (by technology standards) Scanimate analog animation computer I have experienced first-hand the joys of reviving old technology, finding players for outmoded media, documentation, and better yet, people that used and worked with that technology back in the day.  Everybody, including NASA, seems to think recording something is all thats required to archive it. Think again! I have a wall full of media, in dozens of different formats, the players for which are long-dead or dying! And even at that, the media itself is decaying day by day.
A recent posting lamented the challenge of Permabits and Petabytes” and suggested that we only need to remember to archive a player as well.
I posted the following response which I’d like to repeat here:

Archiving a reader sounds simple but the reader is often the tip of the iceberg!
Most readers had a lot of electro-mechanical moving parts that wear out. Tape running past heads acts like very fine grain sandpaper, and there aren’t any spares on a shelf somewhere. Tape itself is iron oxide bound to acetate or mylar and even if it has been carefully kept in a controlled temperature and humidity environment, it takes very little time to degrade. I’ve seen old 2? quadruplex videotapes that shed oxide so badly that you maybe got one chance to run them through the machine, praying that the heads did not clog, and usually they did.
If its computer data, the problem has to include archiving the computer, operating system, and athe backup application that formatted the data. The state of the art has advanced so quickly that most of the manufacturers of vintage storage drives and their attached computer systems are no longer in business. And the computers and OS themselves rely on aging storage systems just to function.

I was involved in the conversion of some of the old Hollywood movie negatives to digital masters, and the problem remains: What do you store your data on that is guaranteed to be around for a very long time? There is no good answer! In Hollywood they make numerous film prints of the restored imagery, because film is the only medium that is still functional 100 years later.
If you talk to the manufacturers of CD and DVD media, they tell horror stories of how few years it takes for oxygen to penetrate the plastic disc and oxidize the metallic or dye layers with the data on it. Think of the amount of data that has been stored on that media that will no longer be readable in just a few years, whether the reader is archived or not!

The only man-made data that has survived centuries is literally carved in stone!

3 thoughts on “Techno-Archaeology”

  1. Joan:
    I’ve considered that, plus more importantly, the animator’s “cookbook” of patches and knob tweaks that it takes to make an effect.
    The problem is that the technology is pretty convoluted, even though what it does is relatively simple. What would make more sense, and what I have discussed with various people, would be to make a “virtual Scanimate” as either a stand-alone program or a plug-in to something like After-Effects. Most of the shortcomings the Scanimate had in terms of limited analog range and CRT rescan issues could be overcome, and some of the visualization plugins I see on WinAmp and other ‘realtime’ visualizers would give a very similar look. The only problem with that is time and money. If you have any ideas let me know. That would definitely carry that realtime way of animating into the future without the baggage of all this obsolete, cranky, often awful-looking technology.

  2. Dave,

    Would it be possible to publish or reverse engineer schematics for the Scanimate? This would allow capturing this knowledge going forward, provide a unique learning experience for those who study analogue electronics, and could assist with the archiving problem (namely, what do we do when your basement Scanimate is no more?)

    I’d have to assume that, at this point, the copyrights are no longer being exercised on the device, and that none of the original inventors are keen to protect that intellectual property as a trade secret.

    I’ll volunteer to help out if it’d make things happen…


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