Reel2Bytes: Digitizing 1950s-era analog tape
Feb 23rd, 2010 by Isaiah Beard

Of all the work I do, I think dealing with older formats, and just figuring out how they work, is the most interesting aspect.

A few weeks ago, a stack of old open real tapes arrived, along with a similar-vintage tape player.  The recordings were done in the early 1950s, as part of a project to record the oral histories of various labor officials who were active in the early 20th century.  The recordings made it unequivocally clear that the intent was to allow students and researchers from decades into the future to get insight on the history of the labor movement in the state.

Well, for quite a few years, these tapes remained shelved and seldom accessed, until a faculty member from the School of Management and Labor Relations learned of their existence and wanted to use them in his courses.  Owing to the age of the recording format, the scarcity of playback equipment, and the condition of the tapes, there is no way that multiple students would practically access the tapes and have them survive.  But, that doesn’t mean the content should stay inaccessible.

And so, after getting a demonstration from out Special Collections staff on the best way to handle the tapes, and after mustering the courage to risk handling them, the player was hooked up to more modern digital recording equipment, and the digitization had begun:

I’ve always heard people talk about what wonderful sound fidelity the old open reel tape formats had, and they’re right; the sound quality is great, particularly for 55+ year old recordings. The physical condition of the tapes left much to be desired though: one reel had a paper backing, and was extremely fragile. Just playing it back was a white-knuckle experience. It’s a shame too, because one thing you do miss in the migration of old content to digital formats is the experience of handling these old things, and getting them working again. The operation of the tape deck; threading the tape, feeling the very mechanical-ness of the format and how it worked… these are things that modern digital formats have yet been unable to duplicate or preserve.

Additional photos of the setup and the reels themselves appear below the cut.
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New Scientist article on “Digital Doomsday”
Feb 3rd, 2010 by Isaiah Beard

One of the topics I like to bring up in the discussion of preserving digital data is the idea of a Digital Dark Age… the notion of a period in our historic knowledge that ends up getting lost due to a failure to plan and preserve our early digital content.

The New Scientist, however, recently published an article (Feb 2, 2010) on something a bit more cataclismic: the concept of  Digital Doomsday.  From the article:

Suppose, for instance, that the global financial system collapses, or a new virus kills most of the world’s population, or a solar storm destroys the power grid in North America. Or suppose there is a slow decline as soaring energy costs and worsening environmental disasters take their toll. The increasing complexity and interdependency of society is making civilisation ever morevulnerable to such events (New Scientist, 5 April 2008, p 28 and p 32).

Whatever the cause, if the power was cut off to the banks of computers that now store much of humanity’s knowledge, and people stopped looking after them and the buildings housing them, and factories ceased to churn out new chips and drives, how long would all our knowledge survive? How much would the survivors of such a disaster be able to retrieve decades or centuries hence?

The article is a compelling read, and offers an intellectual exercise on how much of our “stuff” will survive such a castastrophe.  Ironically, the logic is that the digital content with the most copies oin existence may win out.  So, while scholarly works, theses, research and other important scientific data would be at risk, pop music may surive just fine.

Retrocomputing: Remembering technologies past
Sep 17th, 2009 by Isaiah Beard

Even as technology marches on, there is a slowly growing enthusiasm for looking back on the history of computing, and preserving those still-working specimens of obsolete systems and vintage hardware and software that exist. The movement is known as retrocomputing, and although it’s mostly done as a hobby, I would argue that the people who collect and preserve these older specimens are doing a bit of digital curation in their own right.

It’s one thing to read about older computers in the mid to late 20th century that shaped technology as it stands today. But looking up articles on PDP minicomputersApple IIs, TRS-80s, Commodore 64s and the like from your modern LCD desktop or iPhone just isn’t the same as actually getting to sit in front of one of these Old Greats and using them. And so, every so often, some of these retrocomputing enthusiasts get together and allow the interested public to do just that.

Recently the East Coast Vintage Computer Festival rolled into Wall Tonwship, NJ, and packed the InfoAge Science Center’s exhibit hall wall to wall with computer systems from decades past… most working well, some not so much. Even some of the much older minicomputers on display worked well for a while, until the systems consumed way too much power and blew the science center’s fuses, rendering them inoperable. But of the many old historic systems that did work, visitors could sit down and give them a spin. It was fascinating to be able make an IMSAI 8080 talk just like it did when fictional teenage hacker David Lightman used it to access military computers in the movie Wargames. Playing old cartridge games on a genuine Atari 800 was pretty neat as well. And although my BASIC programming was a little rusty, the old fascination I felt the first time I wrote a program in second grade came back, as I did it all over again.

Operating old computers can be quite a loud affair, as you’ll see in this video. Here, David Gesswein demonstrates a DEC PDP-8 minicomputer, connected – as a PDP-8 likely would have been in the mid-1960s – to an electromechanical ASR-33 Teletype machine. If you think CRT monitors are old-school, consider that this type of setup had no graphics at all. You had just the equivalent of an electric typewriter, a bank of switches and indicator lights, and some reel-to-reel tape machines to interact with. My, how we’re spoiled today…

Unfortunately, the clatter of Teletype and and the din of many excited geeks talking loudly drowns out the audio, but if you want to know more about the PDP-8, David Gesswein has his own website explaining its intricacies, and even lets you interact with a working PDP-8 online.

A wide assortment of photos taken at the festival appear after the jump link below. Enjoy!

Image Gallery: Vintage Computing Festival East 6.0

Another film format extinction: Kodachrome’s last run
Jul 22nd, 2009 by Isaiah Beard

Today, Kodak announced the final production run of Kodachrome film, after a 74-year run.  Kodachrome is yet another  casualty of the long march towards digital formats, as fewer and fewer sales of Kodachrome film have meant continuing to mass produce it is no longer viable.

“KODACHROME Film is an iconic product and a testament to Kodak’s long and continuing leadership in imaging technology,” said Mary Jane Hellyar, President of Kodak’s Film, Photofinishing and Entertainment Group. “It was certainly a difficult decision to retire it, given its rich history. However, the majority of today’s photographers have voiced their preference to capture images with newer technology – both film and digital. Kodak remains committed to providing the highest-performing products – both film and digital – to meet those needs.”

To be sure, Kodak acknowledges that there is only one professional film outlet in the US that processes Kodachrome film, that being Dwayne’s Photo located in Parsons, Kansas.  They have announced that they will continue to sell the film until supplies run out (probably in the Fall of 2009), and will continue to process it until December, 2010:

This is a sad occasion for us, as we’re sure it is for many of you. While we understand the business realities driving Kodak’s decision, we are still sorry to see the film go.

Kodachrome has been hailed as being remarkably color accurate, unique in its characteristic deep color saturation unmatched by other film formats, and praised for its longevity in storage.  Properly cared for, most Kodachrome film has managed to retain its color accuracy despite decades of aging.  One case in point is this circa 1949 image.  Some of us who are way too young to have lived in this era, find it incredibly striking to find such a vivid color photograph, when we’re used to seeing numerous faded black-and-whites depicting the era.

The rich color and depth of Kodachrome is owed to a unique and very complex film processing method, which differs substantially from the process in use for “modern” film formats.  Dawyne’s is, at this point the only photofinisher up to the task, and Kodak is the only supplier of the chemicals needed to render photos from Kodachrome film.    Thus, not only is Kodachrome’s days numbered, but the time runs short for those with unprocessed film to do something about it.

An impending quad tape dilemna?
May 16th, 2009 by Isaiah Beard

An interesting post and ensuing discussion this weekend occurred on the Association of Moving Image Archivists listserv.  Jim Wheeler reports on what could be an ominous sign for Quadruplex and 1-inch Video tape archives around the world. Video Magnetics, Inc., one of the last vendors that services the Quad and 1-inch tape machines, appears to be hitting hard times.

Write Wheeler in his AMIA-L post (click here for full article):

Video Magnetics is the only company that I am aware of that rebuilds 1 inch and 2 inch video heads. Recently, I chatted with the owner (Tony Korte) and he has laid off most of his people. Tony had 45 employees a few years ago and now has five. He will probably have to shut down next year.

There are currently no vendors producing 2-inch tape machines, with the last widely-produced AMPEX and RCA models being introduced in the late 1970s. Even so, is reign spanned three decades, having been introduced in 1956, and used by broadcasting agencies well into the 1980s. Without a doubt, lots of valuable television history exists on Quad tape. Quad slowly began to be supplanted by 1-inch tape in the mid 1970s, with players being made by NEC as late as 1988.

As Wheeler notes, without a knowledgeable vendor servicing the read/write heads for the existing, aging fleet of Quad and 1-inch players, the ability to retrieve the content off the countless reels of tape out there will be lost at an unpredictable rate.

Video Magnetics has been around since 1976. According to their website, they began at that point selling refurbished Quad video heads for Ampex and RCA video recorders. As late as 2006, the company added the ability to service more recent-vintage Sony Betacam SX gear, in addition to modern DVCPRO format VTRs.

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