Out of the Shadow of Hardware Death

Opinion: Collectors and researchers can collaborate to preserve old technology and archival data.

Digital technologies have long since trashed the traditional connection between workmanship, performance and price. Without that connection to maintain natural market behaviors, its going to take original thinking and deliberate effort to avoid losing things that wed be sorry to find ourselves without.

The tools of a technical professional—a slide rule, drawing instruments, a durable and accurate timepiece—used to be exemplars of costly mechanical precision. A top-of-the-line purchase equipped a person for life, with equipment that could even be passed on with pride at the end of a career. Their successor technologies—electronic calculator, laptop PC with CAD software, quartz G-Shock watch—spray rude graffiti across this refined picture, offering something better and cheaper that cheerfully makes itself obsolete every few years.

A tour of eBay reveals the perverse result. The old stuff retains the intrinsic value of durable and attractive materials, meticulously crafted, in forms reflecting decades or even centuries of design for human use. The new stuff, although far more capable in every objective sense, is not in the same class of artifact. At best, its mere garbage not worth the price of tracking down a replacement battery; at worst, its toxic e-waste.

Some of that lately discarded equipment, though, has an aspect of archival as well as intrinsic function. The more modern the tool, the harder it may be to separate those aspects.

We can easily recognize and separate an ancient architects original drawings from the tools that were used to produce them and give each the appropriate handling, but digital technologies blur such distinctions. Removable media from first-generation IT hardware is useless without a peripheral device, and in many cases a functioning copy of a long-abandoned commercial software product, to distill raw bits into useful information. Hard drives embedded in obsolete PCs may hold data, not merely of interest, but also of value: Apart from records important to historians, economists, or corporate archivists, there may be digital representations of calculations or documents that might resolve a costly patent dispute by proving the existence of prior art.

Its long been recognized that we can better document life in the 19th century than in the startup decades of IT in the latter part of the 20th. A century from now, well still have Lincolns handwritten drafts of the Gettysburg Address, but the Nixon tapes may well have deteriorated to the point of being unplayable. The prospects are even worse when it comes to finding a device that can play back an IBM Dictabelt, or regenerate a document from the sheet-format media of an IBM Mag Card Selectric typewriter, to mention only two of the short-lived formats that might stymie a future researcher or investigator.

The rise of private collector interest in early generations of IT hardware may change this situation. Collectors inject new resources into preserving or even restoring hardware and its embedded knowledge of media technologies and formats. On the other hand, collector interest may force academics and other nonprofit researchers into bidding wars against those with more money but less interest in the priceless soft content of the hardware that they acquire.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read about the top five most valuable vintage computers.

Theres room, though, for new thinking about the manner in which these artifacts are sold. Ownership of a machine might be distinguished from ownership of the data that it contains, in much the same manner that land can be sold while reserving or separately selling the rights to resources below the surface. Sale of hardware might be subject to a covenant to permit inspection, at reasonable times, by researchers who would benefit from that access for purposes of reverse engineering.

Theres room for research institutions to take some initiative here, and for those with an interest in hardware collection to put a new spin on patronage of the arts.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com.

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