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Bake It To ReMake It: Cooking Old Magnetic Tape to Recover Data


DEC microVAX with tape drive

Those of us old enough may remember the heyday of the text adventure game genre from the first time around. London-based Magnetic Scrolls was an early pioneering company producing titles for the first Amiga and Atari ST platforms. Fast-forward to 2017 and [Hugh Steers], the original co-founder and core developer for Magnetic Scrolls has formed an initiative to revive and re-release the original games on modern platforms. Since the 1980s-era DEC MicroVAX used originally for development is not particularly rare in retro computing circles, and media containing source code was found in someone’s loft space, reviving the games was not a tall order.

First, he needed to recover a copy of the original source code from the backup tapes. But there was a problem, it turns out that the decaying tapes used a unstable polyurethane-based binder to stick the oxide material (which is what stores the data) to the backing tape, and this binder can absorb water over the years.

Not much happens until you try to read the tape, then you trip over the so-called sticky-shed syndrome. Secondly you may find that a small amount of the oxide layer sheds from the tape, coating the read head, rollers and guides inside the complicated tape mechanism. This quickly results in it gumming up, and jamming, potentially chewing up the tape and destroying it permanently.

This was further exacerbated by the behaviour of the DEC TK50Z tape drive, which needed to shuttle the whole length of the tape as part of its normal operation.

A temporary solution was to bake the tape in an oven to drive out the moisture and reduce the stickiness enough to run it through the drive safely. Then only the oxide-shedding problem remained. The TK50Z drive was swapped for a TZ30 which shuttles the tape less, but also critically with a simple hack, would allow the heads to be cleaned with IPA between read passes. This was enough to keep the gumming up at bay and allow enough data to be read from the tapes to recover several games worth of code, ready for the re-releasing process.

The video after the break shows [Rob Jarratt] working through the process of the data recovery.

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