It Takes a Village to Save a Hard Drive

Doron in utter disbelief

In the final days of  the XFR STN exhibition at the New Museum, we encountered what was hands-down the most challenging born-digital recovery to have occured during the run of the exhibition. On August 30th, artist Phil Sanders arrived at the New Museum with an amalgam floppy disks, and two external hard disk drives. XFR STN technician Kristin MacDonough went into production mode with recovering the floppy disks. In just a few hours Kristin was able to recover 146 of Phil’s floppy disks. Prolific!

Kristin MacDonough rescuing floppy disks

Kristin MacDonough, Phil Sanders, and family

While Kristin tended to the sea of floppy disks, I investigated the hard drive situation. The first external disk drive was a peripheral used with an Amiga. The enclosure’s external interface was nothing we could use with our variety of adapters and forensic bridges, so I opened it up to take a look at the internal interface.

Phil Sanders' Amiga external hard disk drive

Phil Sanders' Amiga external hard disk drive

Luckily the drive inside was just a standard 3.5″ SCSI hard disk. Using a Tableau SCSI bridge (or “write-blocker”) and FTK Imager we made a raw (dd) disk image of the drive. Having worked previously with Amiga hard disk images I knew this wasn’t the end of the story. This raw image of the entire disk would only really be useful if it was a system disk, and if Phil wanted to emulate his old Amiga system. If all that Phil really wanted was the files on the disk, the image would be useless to him for a few reasons: 1) the Amiga Fast File System (AFFS) is not supported in FTK Imager, so we would be unable to browse the file system or dump the files for him there, as was the workflow for most disk images at XFR STN. 2) AFFS is fortunately supported in Linux, but the partitioning scheme used on Amiga disks is not, meaning this raw image we’ve produced of Phil’s disk can not be mounted as-is. Michael Kohn made a brilliant tool that provides a solution to this - not only can you view partitions on the disk image, and browse around the file system, you can use his tool to dump a raw image of just one partition. This “dumped” raw image can then be mounted natively in Linux, allowing you to get the files and do whatever it is you please. We used this process to provide Phil with the full raw image of the disk, the raw image devoid of partitioning scheme, and a dump of all of the files. Start-to-finish this does not take much time at all… if you’ve used the tools before, maybe one hour tops.

Phil Sanders' "Sider" external hard disk drive

The next external hard disk drive, originally used with an Apple //e, was a wholly different scenario. The external interface appeared at first glance to be SCSI, but after counting the pins it became apparent that we were dealing with something else. I posted pictures of the drive to the Digital Curation list, and Mark Matienzo was able to find the manual for the drive, confirming that the connection was in fact SASI, an interface that was precursor to SCSI.

The Sider's external SASI interface

I opened up the enclosure, hoping that the internal interface was something that we could easily work with, only to find that not only was the internal interface equally obscure, but that the disk was a whopping 5.25″ form factor, as opposed to the standard 3.5″ encountered in most personal computer hard disk drives.

Pictured right: The Sider's hard disk. Left: 3.5" hard disk for scale

Phil’s hard drive is pictured above on the right. On the left is a 3.5″ SCSI hard disk for scale. As we had no simple way of interfacing with the Sider, either through its external or internal interface, we knew that given our limited time and expertise, the easiest way to work with the drive would be with the original computer it was used with. Luckily, Phil had held on to his Apple //e. Knowing that our lab setup at XFR STN could easily recover 5.25″ floppy disks, my plan was to essentially migrate files from the 10MB hard drive, to 5.25″ floppies, which we could then recover and extract the files from. The following week, on September 6th, Phil brought in his Apple //e and all of its peripherals. By some crazy stroke of fate, Apple ][ expert and friend Jason Scott,  happened to stop by to visit XFR STN just as we were setting up Phil’s computer. This was a life saver, as my knowledge of Apple DOS leaves a bit to be desired. Phil informed us that The Sider contained the bulk of his artistic output from the 80’s, including much material that he produced while artist-in-residence at NYU. He also informed us that the Sider was in fact the boot disk for the //e. All of the hardware was plugged in and waiting. It was with great anticipation we proceeded to power on Phil’s Apple //e, and listened to a 10lb, 10MB hard disk attempt to spin up for the first time in over two decades.

Jason Scott powering on The Sider, Doron and Phil looking on

Initially, nothing happened. The drive sounded horrible, and the //e informed us that there was an IO error. The drive sounded like it was spinning, but it just sounded bad. It sounded like a mechanical device that had not been properly exercised in two decades. Slowly though, it began to spin faster. After some coaxing, powering the //e on and off a few times, and perhaps a few prayers to the god of dead media, we heard some head activity coming from the drive, and miraculously, the CRT monitor offered up a menu.

Booting the Apple //e

Phil’s memory had been accurate. Not only was the Sider the //e’s boot disk, but it had multiple operating systems available, and this boot menu that allowed us to choose what OS to use. We booted into DOS and proceeded to take a look at what was on the disk.

Jason Scott, hard drive whisperer.

The disk was mainly cooperative, and we only had to reboot a few times due to IO errors. There was one area of the disk that appeared to be corrupt or, unreadable. We found a lot of content on the healthy areas of the disk, but what we saw were mostly system files and software. No art, but we copied the files we found to 5.25″ floppy disk anyway just to be on the safe side. Phil then informed us that he hardly used Apple DOS, and primarily worked in ProDOS. We restarted the machine and booted into ProDOS. We then found the mother lode. What had appeared to be a corrupt part of the disk was in fact the area of the disk that only ProDOS could read - and it contained massive amounts of artwork made by Phil during the 80’s.

We had to act fast - there was no telling how long the Sider would spin before finally buying the farm. While in DOS we had simply copied files in batches to floppy disk, we found that in ProDOS we could use the Copy II Plus program to actually produce a backup of the entire Sider hard disk. Jason initiated the process.

L to R: Jason Scott, Doron Ben-Avraham, Walter Forsberg, Phil Sanders

We only happened to have seven 5.25″ floppy disks on hand,  yet after indexing the entire hard disk, Copy II Plus told us that we would need 24 floppies in all. This was not initially any cause for alarm, as we realized that we would recover the floppies immediately as Copy II Plus produced them, and that once a floppy was imaged, it could be re-used. As Matthew Kirschenbaum so eloquently put it at the next day’s symposium, we were operating a veritable “bucket brigade” between the Apple //e and our floppy recovery station, bits sloshing over the side as we rescued Phil’s artwork from certain oblivion.

Copy II Plus backup on 5.25" Floppy disk

The post-it note pictured above was an indicator that this particular floppy was a backup of Slot 7, Volume 1, disk 1 of 24. Slot 7 was the Sider, and on the Sider there were in fact two volumes. After seven disks, we attempted to re-use the first one we created, only to come to the terrible discovery that Copy II Plus refuses to overwrite what it detects as a backup disk. We ran back to our Kryoflux, as I recalled that one can use the device not only for recovery, but for writing back to disk. Unfortunately DOS 3.3 is not yet one of the supported writing formats. We wrote an Amiga format disk image back to disk, hoping that the Apple //e would see that it was not in DOS 3.3 format, and attempt to reformat the floppy before backing up to it. Unfortunately it simply refused to acknowledge this disk, rather than offer to reformat. It was then, that New Museum director of IT, Doron Ben-Avraham posed the idea of erasing the floppy disks with a magnet. I was completely skeptical, figuring that if the //e refused to reformat an Amiga disk, why would it react differently to a disk whose geometry had been obliterated? Doron managed to find a tiny magnet in the office.

Pure ingenuity

Amazingly… it worked! Doron assumed floppy erasing duties, and our bucket brigade was back in action, writing to floppy with the //e, recovering, and then erasing and reusing the disk. We managed to back up the first volume of the disk. The day had come to an end, and we needed to call it quits, but there was a whole other volume remaining to be backed up. This was on a Friday, and the soonest we would be able to pick up where we left off would be the following Sunday. Not wanting to risk spinning down the Sider hard disk drive, we left the whole system set up and running for two days in the resource center.

Restoration in progress

On Sunday, Phil and I took a close look at the contents of the two volumes, and found that Volume 2 was simply a direct mirror of Volume 1. Our backup was complete! We took this as an opportunity to run and document Phil’s work. Walter Forsberg had the brilliant idea to do direct video capture from the //e, so we moved to one of the video preservation stations, and proceeded to do just that. I asked Phil questions about the fidelity of the image quality we were seeing.

Phil Sanders demoing his work during live capture

It is rather incredible that likely none of this recovery process would have been available or accessible to Phil without a resource like XFR STN. Nearly a decade of Phil’s born-digital artwork now lives on the Internet Archive in the form of Floppy disk images, hard drive dumps, and  an hour of 10-bit uncompressed direct video capture. It sets the stage for further work in restoring an operational emulation of Phil’s //e. This really drives home what was the core and fundamental principle of the XFR STN project. This is a level of care and preservation commonly only available to artists that have already been written into the cannon. It is not simply rehetoric or an overstatement to say that this project did indeed turn the capitalist meritocracy of institutional preservation on its head. It is incredibly rewarding to know that we set the stage for allowing some lesser known artists to have the opportunity to be discovered decades from now. More important and more rewarding than seeing these all of these fundamental ideals in action though, was getting the opportunity to witness Phil and his wife see his work for the first time in decades, and to share it with their daughter for the first time ever. Thanks Phil.

Phil Sanders and family


  1. Bertram Lyons

    Great work, Ben (and team). Thanks for sharing the details of your efforts with the world. And congrats on the success.

  2. Pingback: Collaboration Before Preservation: Recovering Born Digital Records in the Stephen Gendin Papers | Manuscripts and Archives Blog
  3. Adrian

    Great reading, even if it is three and a bit years after the events! In an odd fit of synchronicity I’m have interests in data recovery/longevity/digital archaeology, follow Jason Scott and his work, and ride an AWOL. Found your blog last night through searching on AWOLS and read your two bike postings then backtracked to here. Cheers, Adrian

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