The Hero in I.T.

Before the cloud, vital data—even a Fortune 500 company's records—could reside on one single set of floppy disks. But what if something happened to these precious objects? Who could fix them?
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It was September 1986 and I was settling into my job as the microcomputer manager at the Pasadena corporate headquarters of Avery International (maker of binders, office supplies, colorful stick-on dots). The office was appropriately opulent for a Fortune 500 company; artwork on the walls, floors of marble and chestnut. 

Most of my day involved showing people how to do things in software (WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3, Harvard Graphics), replenishing supplies (I had cabinets full of dot-matrix ribbons, some toner cartridges, and boxes of 5¼ inch diskettes), or setting up and burning in new equipment.

Half the staff had dual floppy IBM 5150s, about a quarter had the new Compaq luggables, and a lucky few had the new IBM XT's with their magnanimous 10 megabyte hard disks. Color monitors were reserved for those with heavy graphic needs or up on the third floor (the executive offices). And, naturally, as the PC manager, I had an XT with a color monitor.

Obviously, this was before "the cloud," before networked hard drives, before Google Docs. 

Halfway through one moderately busy afternoon, the fire alarms triggered—buzz buzz buzz and flashing strobes, which most people ignored. We were fairly accustomed to alarms sounding when someone left a burning cigarette in their office (yes, this was the ’80s, and people still smoked indoors at work). After about five minutes of this nonsense I looked up to see a larger than usual smattering of employees milling about outside, so I went to see what was up.

Most of them were from our tax department on the second floor of the building. Apparently, not only had somebody set off the alarm, but the overhead automatic sprinklers in that part of the building had been activated as well. Oy. Immediately my mind jumped to the possibility of wet monitors. I reentered the building and quietly slid behind my desk, waiting for the disaster reports to roll in. My phone lit up. A distraught sounding vice president of the tax department was on the other end.

"Can you come over to Peggy's office?"  

I inhaled and reluctantly headed up the stairs. I was rather expecting flying sparks and smoke wafting out of a monitor, but when I entered the office I was greeted with a somewhat dampened Peggy, her boss the vice president, and a very wet wood desk with two layers of soaking 5¼ inch floppy disks.

"Now what?" the VP asked.

I shrugged and looked at the disks. Peggy chimed in, almost choking, "I was right in the midst of organizing our tax records when the sprinkler went off."  

"Do you have any backups?" I asked.

Silence.

I didn't have to ask. I was looking at the only copy of our corporate tax records for the last couple of years, all entered into Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets, all drenched. Big trouble.

"Let me see what I can do," I sighed, gingerly stacking the soggy diskettes into a pile. I carried the disks back downstairs to my desk and thought.

First, I picked up one of the drier looking victims and slid it into the diskette slot, latching down the door.

Dir a: (enter)

The screen replied "Directory of drive A:" and then the PC made an awful groaning sound.  I immediately popped the drive door open, afraid I'd ruin my diskette drive. "Drive Read Failure" the PC responded. Duh.

I pulled out the diskette and flipped it over a couple of times. It seemed normal enough looking. Then I grabbed the interior ring and tried to spin the disk so I could examine the surface through the elongated oval slot. It wouldn't budge. I tried harder, but nothing. The diskette was frozen solid. I sighed.

At this point, I didn't have anything to lose, so I pulled out a penknife and gingerly worked it around three edges of the square plastic outside of the diskette. The heat laminated press points easily released, and as I unfolded the packaging, the circular magnetic disk stuck to one side.  What was disconcerting was that the disk was a mottled white, completely covered by small fabric hairs from the inside of the packaging. I had never opened one before, but now I could see that away from the oval opening the container had two thin sheets of some sort of Teflon based woven fabric. The wettening had frizzled up their surfaces. I placed my fingernails under the magnetic disk and pried it free from the other half: it was now white on both sides, and well, oddly enough, floppy. What now?

A light-bulb moment.

I walked the floppy over to the men's room, placed it under the faucet, gently turned on the cold water, and lightly rubbed the white threads off from the surface. I grabbed a paper towel from the dispenser, laid it on the counter, placed the disk and then another paper towel lightly on top, and then I tapped it around. I walked back to my desk with the victim between the paper towels.  I grabbed a fresh box of diskettes, pulled out a fresh new one, and walked my penknife around three of the edges to pop it open. I threw the good sacrificial circular magnetic disk from inside into the trash. Then I gingerly removed the paper towels, placed the victim disk in between the pristine white fabric liner of the new case, folded it back into a square, and slid it into my disk drive.

Dir a: (enter).  

Directory of Drive A:

CalifState1985prelim.wks

CalifState1985final.wks

40712 bytes free

Bingo.

I copied the files to my hard drive. Then I grabbed the other 19 soggy disks and walked to the men's room with my penknife. It was a slow process, but it was working. At one point, a fellow programmer wandered in to do his business and stared at me with eyes wide. "Uhhhh… cleaning your data?" he asked.

I managed to recover 18 of the 20 disks.

And, yes, I started a weekly routine to back up each department’s data.

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​Jeff Chapman

Jeff Chapman works in IT for Peak Performance, a marketing company based in Los Angeles. He writes regularly at L.A. SkateDad.

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