The robot census

Hey, anyone got a copy of Wordstar 1.0, so I can read Martin Amis’ email?

For historians, digital technology is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, almost everything that “important people” write — email, documents, text messages — is stored somewhere, so computers are preserving ever more essential records of history in progress. The problem is, most of this stuff is written on programs that quickly become obsolete, and thus as inscrutable as the Voynich manuscript. I myself have a couple of 5 1/2-inch floppy disks from 1989 with copies of my college papers on it, written in Wordstar 5.0. I’ll probably never read them again.

The British Library is now bonking up against this conundrum. They’ve announced a project to collect the emails and digital documents of literary greats such as Ted Hughes, Stephen Hawking, and, uh, J.K. Rowling. But since much of this stuff is on ancient media, they’re also forced to somehow get access to all the ancient steam-driven computers on which these notables wrote their great works. But, as digital archivist Jeremy John told, the library does not actually have space to store these machines. As a result …

He is appealing for help from members of the public who own obsolete machines so he can unlock archaic files. The British Library does not have room to store bulky computers, but John wants to compile a list of households that own working machines such as the Atlas, one of the earliest British computers that was widely available. [snip]

“As well as computers, I need people to keep hold of disk drives and manuals,” John says.

“Manuals are not officially published, so libraries do not hold copies of them. Without them it will be difficult to get the computers to work.”

He has compiled a list of 11 computers from the 1960s and beyond that he needs to locate, including rare British models such as the Whitechapel Workstation MG-1 and the Sinclair ZX80.

(Thanks to Bookninja for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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