Preserving memories How to save the artifacts stored on old technology

Sounds and images can be transferred from obsolete media to modern equipment.

October 19, 1998|By Kate Seago | Kate Seago,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Out in the garage or up in a closet, packed away with your high school yearbooks and your father's golf clubs, are memories.

Do you still have the equipment to watch that 8 mm movie of your son's first steps or to listen to the reel-to-reel recording of your grandmother's voice? Or does that shoe box contain only unplayable artifacts of dead technologies?

When a water leak damaged some 8 mm and Super 8 film shot by Glenda Wilson's father from the 1950s to the 1970s, the Garland, Texas, woman began to think about ways to preserve the rolls.

"The urgency, I guess, came when I was afraid that they might be lost forever," says Wilson, who had almost 8,000 feet of the film transferred to DVD format and then to VHS cassettes at a nearby shop.

The movies include images of family members who passed away years ago, including her father, who died when she was 12.

"There's my great-grandmother; she was almost 90 when these pictures were taken," Wilson says. "And there's my dad. I don't really remember all that much about him, so it was interesting to see him interact with other kids and with me when I was little. It was very interesting, very moving."

Americans have used hundreds of formats for audio and visual recordings since World War II. When the original playback equipment broke down, the recordings became unplayable for their owners. So the key to retrieving data from most obsolete media is to find a working machine, says Mark A. Hauck, production coordinator/ media services at Neumann College in Aston, Pa.

Experts say to start with the person who made the original tape, movie or files. He or she might have a machine that can be patched together long enough to make your transfers. Hobbyists hoard old cameras, tape decks and the like, so ask around.

Other sources are thrift shops, garage sales and newspaper ads. And the newest medium, the Internet, is one of the best places to look for retro tech. Try Web auction sites such as

Sometimes a little imagination and experimentation can help. For example, David Morton, research historian at the Center for the History of Electrical Engineering at Rutgers University, says it's usually possible to find a way to play old audiotapes.

"You can modify a reel-to-reel tape player to play almost anything - even an 8-track, if you take it out of its old cartridge," he says.

But Bruce Sterling, a science fiction novelist and moderator for the Dead Media Project, an Internet study group, cautions that no medium - including new digital formats - is permanent. So keep your originals; you may need them again.

Here is advice from the experts about retrieving data from some of the most popular home media formats of the past few decades:

Reel-to-reel and 8-track audiotapes

"There are so many working reel-to-reel tape recorders out there that I think most people are able to pretty easily find a way to transfer them," Morton says.

"Most audio formats should have auxiliary jacks on the rear panel that say RECORD OUT/IN or AUX OUT/IN. The plugs that fit these jacks will either be RCA phono or quarter-inch phono. Connect the OUT jacks from the retro gear to the IN jacks of a good audiocassette, digital audiotape or minidisc with standard RCA cables.

"If no jacks are offered on the retro gear, you must record the audio acoustically with a microphone placed near the playback speaker[s]."

Apple IIe, IBM and other 5 1/4-inch drive computers

Early personal computers, including Apple II and IBM equipment, used 5 1/4-inch floppy disks.

Tom Carlson, creator of the virtual Museum of Obsolete Computers, says, "You've got three different problems that occur when you're trying to go from old stuff to new stuff. Step No. 1 is physical incompatibility: I've got a 5 1/4-inch disk and a 3 1/2-inch drive, and I can't physically stick one in the other.

"The second level is the basic operating system incompatibility. It may be a Macintosh disk and my computer won't read it. It could conceivably be a Commodore 64 disk or an old Atari disk. They're just totally different formats.

"And then the third level is, even if you can get the data from one computer to the other, do you have anything that can read it? Your copy of Word isn't going to be able to read those old word processor files."

Modern computers can't decipher Apple II disks, so your best bet for retrieving those files may be to find an Apple II machine with a modem, save the files in ASCII (text) format and send them to your new computer or to a bulletin board. Null modem cables connecting serial ports on each machine also may work using a terminal program, but you'll have to tinker, Carlson says.

For 5 1/4-inch disks in IBM-compatible format, you'll need a 5 1/4-inch drive, available at computer swap meets, by mail order or on the Internet.

The best solution, of course, is to be sure when you upgrade your computer that you don't abandon an old medium before you've moved all your data.

8 mm home movies

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