I Remember When – Part 4

by by Ron Kley, Museum Research Associates on

Happiness is a Restorable Backup!


Image courtesy of the Computer History Museum

Back in the day when computers first began to appear on, under or beside the desks of registrars or curators, (most equipped with two 5.25-inch “floppy” diskette drives, but some boasting hard drives with as much as a 20 megabyte capacity) it was well recognized that systems sometimes crashed as a result of hardware or software malfunctions, and users were well advised to backup their files diligently. There were no network servers that would attend to this chore automatically, and nobody had yet thought of the possibility that clouds could store anything other than raindrops or snowflakes.

Typically, backup files were stored on external hard drives, on magnetic tape drives, or on multiple diskettes. (I recall the sense of relief when “high capacity” diskettes with a 1.44 megabyte capacity first became available in the late ‘80s, significantly reducing the number of diskettes needed to backup an entire collection database.) Because it was quicker and easier, some people actually made a practice of storing their backup files on the same hard drive that held their master database – a practice akin to welding lifeboats to a ship’s deck!

But there could be problems in the process of generating a backup file. A typical procedure might involve keyboard commands (remember, this was back in the days of DOS and CPM operating systems) to (1) identify the device to which, and the port through which data would be sent, (2) establish a name for the file to be created, (3) enter the actual backup command, and (4) properly close the backup file once data transfer was complete. If a keyboard command such as “backup data for catalog” were to incorporate a “typo” such as “backup data for cataleg” the mindless machine would dutifully create a file containing only an error message such as “cataleg is an undefined table” – and the user might never discover that fact unless or until she/he needed to access the backup file for restoration following a hard drive failure or a transient power surge that could scramble data into a hash of incomprehensible characters.

And then there were those who dutifully created valid backups at regular intervals and stored them where they were vulnerable to the same fire, flood or other disaster that might befall their office.

We don’t do those things anymore…I hope! But I’ve always felt, and still feel, that computer users should always remain skeptical of their backup files, backup media, backup procedures and/or backup services until they’ve proven themselves by delivering a fully functional restoration of that precious data – the restoration being made, of course, to an independent computer or to a new file whose creation will not over-write existing data.


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