In the world of vintage computing history and preservation, I am both an archivist and a conservator. There are very many archivists in various corners of our field; it is easy to gather up collections from multiple sources and dump them in a single place for the viewing public. Conservators, however, are the people who roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. They perform the task of extracting the archival works in the first place from the original distribution medium. This can range from reading files off of a disk, to reconstructing long-past systems using 3-D printed replacement parts, to figuring out the structure of unfamiliar data. Conservation is work. Our hobby needs more conservators.
Some data rescues have high visibility, such as the recovery of Andy Warhol’s early digital art. But the majority of rescues are not notable. My specific area of focus is very early (think 1980s) PC games on floppy disks, and recently I’ve recovered a few items not yet found “in the wild”, but painfully boring: A horrible WWII flight combat sim, a chess tutor, a children’s A-B-C program. The latter is PCjr-specific, which is intriguing, but for the most part these items hold no significant place in history. Still, I do it for The Cause.
One enjoyable side benefit of this work is occasionally coming across something human amongst the digital clutter. Like a trunk discovered in an attic that hasn’t been opened in decades, you can find all sorts of clues about a person’s or family’s past, pieces of their lives, hiding in the data: Letters to family, ledgers and receipts, creative writing, favorite recipes, comic book collections, a child’s digital fingerpainting. I’ve found these and more during my archaeology, and it always makes me smile. (Please don’t get the wrong idea; I don’t mean the above to sound voyeuristic, but rather more of admiration and respect for the original owners who actually used their systems to improve their lives.)
One favorite example in recent memory was when I rescued a no-name taiwanese XT clone out of the trash (literally; it was in a dumpster). Based on the files left behind, the system was owned by an asian female college student in the late 1980s who was an accounting major and used the computer exclusively for school… or so it looked at first glance. Tucked away among all of the spreadsheets, essays, and databases, in a tiny corner of the filesystem, was a single directory that was filled with poetry, in a style written with few carefully and powerfully chosen words. The entire system and its files gave the impression of a young woman who was following her father’s wishes, but who longed for something more fulfilling.
And it is here I will introduce you to miss Amanda Collins, who holds the record for the most endearing recovery I’ve had this decade. I don’t know anything about her other than her name, and I certainly don’t know which out of the nearly 1500 “Amanda Collins” located in the USA White Pages she is. I don’t know how old she is, although I have a good guess how old she was All I can tell you is how I found her.
I was going through disks to archive and found a commercial business program from the early 1980s that looked interesting; I had never run across it before, and it was copy-protected which is always a fun challenge. But more interesting is that it was sticky. As in, peanut butter and jelly sticky — on the media itself (ie. the part that shows in the “window” that the diskette sleeve’s pictographs illustrated you were never, ever supposed to touch). Rescuing this disk required actual warm water, a soft cloth, and careful rubbing. Unfortunately, the diskette had been permanently damaged by whatever had stuck to the media, but I figured I’d work a little harder on the first few tracks just so I could see what was on the disk and call it a day. At the end of the directory, after the commercial program files, was a file called ET with no date on it. I wasn’t able to rescue the program, but I was able to get the ET file. It is my pleasure to share it with you exactly as I found it:
ONE DAY I WAS WALKING DOWN THE STRET
AND SAW E.T. HE REPLIED WHO ARE YOU.
I REPLIED I AM AMANDA N. COLLINS.
SO WE WENT WALKING THEN E.T AND I
WENT TO MARY'S SHE SAID WHAT A CUTE
CREATRUER I SAID IT IS E.T WHAT?
REALY.IAM NOT JOKING.THEN PROVE IT TO
ME OK E.T. GIVE ME YOUR FINGER LIKE YOU
DID IN THE MOVIES E.T REPLIED OK. MARY
SAID I DON'T BELEAVE IT. E.T AND I
SAID BYE-BYE MARY SAID OK GOOD BYE.
THEN I WENT TO RICK'S HOUSE HE SAID
GEEPRES E.T. I'LL BYE HIM OFF YOU
FOR 50$ I SAID SORRY BUT HE IS NOT FOR
SALE AMANDA 50$ PRACTICEL IT IS NOT
PRACTICEL THEN IF 50$ IS PRACTICEL
THEN HOW ABOUT 2.00$ COME OFF IT RICK
THEN 5.000$ NO-ON-NO STOP POOLING MY
HAIR NOT UNTIL YOU LET ME HAVE HIM.RICK
I'VE GOT A IDEA I WILL HAVE HIM FOR SIX
MONTHS AND YOU WILL HAVE HIM FOR SIX
MONTHSRICK AGREED AND THERE WAS NO MORE
FIGHTING ANYMORE BETWEEN RICK AND I SO
E.T AND I WENT TO BERGER KING E.T ORDER
A CHEESE BERGER AND A HAM BERGER WITH
EXTA ONIONS AND PICLES E.T. ALSO ORDER
A LARGE ORDER OF FRENCE FRIES.THEN WE
WENT TO MY HOUSE I HIDE E.T IN MY BARBE
HOUSE WHEN MY MOTHER WENT TO CLEANE MY
BARBE HOUSE SHE YELLED AMANDA GET DOWN
HERE AMEIDLE .I SAID WHAT IS WRONG
AMANDA STOP JOKING MOM REALY I DON'T
KNOW WHAT YOUR TALKING ABOUT THEN
EXPLAIN THIS E.T.GET HIM OUT OF HERE.
NOW IS MY ONLY CHACNE TO GET IN ONE OF
MY DOLLS DRESSES AND HIDE HIM IN MY
CLOSET . WHEN MOM CAME TO CHECK MY
CLOSET MOM SAID WHERE DID YOU GET THAT
NEW DOLL .I SAID I SENT AWAY FOR IT .GO
AHEAD BUT NOT NEXT TIME I'LL REMEMBER.
THEN WE WENT OUT FOR BREAKFAST.WE WENT
TO MC DONALD'S WE HAD PANCAKES OFF THE
OVEN THEY WHERE SHORE GOOD.E.T.SAID
LET'S GO TO THE MUSEMS I SAID LET'S GO
SEE THE DINASORES. THEN WE WENT TO THE
PARK AND THEN BACK TO MC DONALD'S AND
HAD LUNCH AT 7.45 WE CAME TO A END AND
HAD DINNER AT 8.04 AT 12.55 E.T AND I
WENT TO BED.
This little girl had decided one day to write a story, and when the program prompted for a diskette to save it, she grabbed — with sticky jelly fingers — whatever diskette was closest and jammed it in… in this case, Daddy’s expensive business program, ruining it in the process, and possibly the drive it was jammed into.
I lack the skill to convey how adorable I find this.
In your own digital archaeology adventures, may you someday feast on cheese bergers, and see dinasores at the park.