Seen on RISKS-L

From: Ethan Dicks <>
Date: Thu Mar 7 14:22:48 2002

--- Douglas Quebbeman <> wrote:
> > >This is not a new problem - It has appeared in Risks before
> > > (RISKS-21.56: 'NASA data from 1970s lost due to "forgotten" file
> > > format'...
> NASA hasn't lost data, it's lost the will to hire and
> retain talented people who can make things work. Just
> like everyplace else in this whacko economy...

No arguing with that, but I think this particular example is real. The
problem is oversimplified and understated with the phrase "forgotton file
format" - if I'm remembering the incident accurately, it was more a case
of "obsolete media format" - 200 bpi *7* track tape, once common.

I know that a friend of mine from the Ice worked on a project to digest
metric tons of 2MT7 (not that it was ever called that, but as a label
to differentiate it from the more common 16MT9) loaded with data from
the Apollo program. IIRC, some of it was data pertaining to the laser
reflectometer and how many wavelengths of light the moon is from us at
any particular moment (an experiement which shows physical evidence the
moon is still ringing like a struck bell from a "recent" impact, possibly
one observed and documented 500 years ago in Europe and China).

The rig they used (making this on-topic!) was a PDP-11 with a 7-track
tape drive (don't know the model number) and an 8mm Exabyte drive,
probably an 8200, but I don't know for certain. In between the tape
drives, on the PDP-11 was some simple copying software and some
slave labor^H^H^H^H^H^H^Ha graduate student. I don't have exact numbers,
but it was on the order of several cubic meters of magtape distilled down
to a file drawer of 8mm carts. Presumably, multiple copies were made
and disseminated (one would hate to think all that work would end up
on tapes that were never read again).

I heard about this project during the 1995-1996 austral summer.


P.S. - it was reminscent of the problems of reading the 1960 census. I'd
heard that the only extant copy of the data was on microfilmed round-holed
punch cards. Round-holed because that's the equipment (Univac?) they
used for that census. Microfilmed because the climate controlled warehouse
for that many punch cards for that many decades was getting too expensive
to maintain. Various schemes were floated for recovering that data when
the time came (since all census data is _eventually_ released, 70 years
later in the case of details). In the end, I think, a 7 track tape copy
of the data was found and read, obviating the need to OCR millions of
microfilmed punch cards.

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Received on Thu Mar 07 2002 - 14:22:48 GMT

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