Perhaps the biggest potential nightmare for anyone who works with computers is the deletion of an important project, with no hope for restoration. It even happens on some of the biggest projects:
1. NASA Erases Moon Landing Videos
Many consider the original moon landing to be humankind’s greatest achievement, but beaming it live to televisions was a marvel of engineering in itself. First, a signal had to be sent from the video camera on the moon, all the way back to Earth. Then, this signal has to be processed so it could be sent to televisions all over the world. Radio waves travel at the speed of light, so all this was done with a delay of only a few seconds.
This anecdote revolves around the fact that the signal received through the monitors at N.A.S.A. was naturally much more clear and high-resolution than the signal broadcast from N.A.S.A. to televisions way back in 1969. To give an example of just how primitive televisions were, the United Kingdom had just started color television that year. That means that, thanks to the digital leap, N.A.S.A. could spiff up those original high-resolution videos and show the moon landing in breathtaking resolution the public has never seen.
Except they can’t, because they deleted them.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
Recording data used to be a process which took up lots of physical space. Since N.A.S.A. is perhaps the biggest repository of data in the world, they began to run into a storage problem in the 1980s. So, to save space, they began writing over old data tapes. As one might surmise, one of the tapes which was recorded over had the originals for the moon landing. Fortunately, this doesn’t detract from the impact of this defining moment for humanity.
2. Pixar Erases Toy Story 2
Photo Credit: Disney
Toy Story 2 was a high-pressure, rushed production that saw many employees working arduous overtime hours. As such, when data was apparently permanently deleted from the drives at Pixar, it sent a panic through the entire project team. The backup system wasn’t doing its job, and the entire project looked sunk. The story is told through this cute video:
Finally a technical director admitted that she had many of the missing files on her computer at home. Keep in mind that it’s not rendered footage being referred to here, which would be impossible to store on a home computer in 1998. But the TD had all of the missing textures and other such code. Whether or not she was supposed to have these files off-site is a hotly-debated gray area, but employees at the time felt relief.
Driving over to her house, staff wrapped up the computer as carefully as possible, and convoyed it back to Pixar. One thing to learn from this story, and the accompanying video, is that when data is being deleted, physically unplugging the computer can make the restoration process more difficult.
Toy Story 2 went on to gross hundreds of millions of dollars.
3. Ticketmaster and the cab driver hard drive
In the 1980s, as has been mentioned, data storage was a space-consuming affair. Storing just a few dozen gigabytes of data could take up an entire room. One company who wanted to keep constant track of their computer data was Ticketmaster, a large vendor for tickets to concerts and events. Back then, each Ticketmaster city had its own independent storage drive. Backups would traditionally be made daily and archived every month. This is a useful strategy for preventing loss due to data deletion, but the separation of the storage drives meant off-site backup was lacking. So, if all of the computers at a particular location were wiped out due to theft or disaster, all the information for that city would be lost.
San Francsico was one such place that had these Ticketmaster drives. On October 17, 1989, the devastating Loma Prieta Earthquake struck the Bay Area. In addition to countless loss of lives and property, all of the machines at Ticketmaster were irreparably damaged. All the data seemed lost forever. It would have been, had it not been for a creative off-site backup that illustrates some of the difficulties of computing in 1989. This would be among the factors that soon prompted Ticketmaster to merge its systems.
Back before the earthquake had struck, the employees formed a plan. Knowing a single theft or fire (or tremor) could destroy a month of unarchived data, employees had to come up with a solution. Renting a backup spot was costly and ultimately wasteful as the daily disks were about the size of a microwave. So, they came up with what might be the only non-digital form of cloud storage in history. A San Francisco taxi driver was hired, his job to keep daily backup disks in the trunk of his cab. In the early morning each day, he would swing by Ticketmaster, and the old disks would be swapped for the new ones. A primitive workaround, for certain, but one that ultimately turned out to be Earthquake-proof, as the cab driver’s data remained intact. Employees were able to restore the lost data using the “trunk disks,” which just shows how important preventative planning is when it comes to backing up data.
4. Rescuers Scene Scattered across Highway
Heidi Guedel’s book, “Animatrix,” tells a unique story of movie’s struggles to back up physically produced scenes. “The Rescuers” is an animated Disney film from 1977. Talking animals go on a wild adventure, everything hand drawn in cell animation. That means each scene had just one copy, a stack of cells (individual, hand-drawn frames), because backing up that kind of information in 1977 would take a building full of equipment.
One day during the production of “The Rescuers,” the day’s efforts centered around scenes with an animated Albatross named Orville. The cells with Orville’s scenes were given to a production assistant to deliver across Burbank. That assistant promptly threw the box on top of their car, forgot about it, and drove away. The cells were scattered across the road for miles, a physical form of data deletion. No copies were available, and the scenes had to be redone from near scratch. This is definitely one area where computers are superior: Data loss due to accidents is far less frequently permanent.
“The Rescuers” went on to gross dozens of millions of dollars.
In modern times, when information is backed up to hard drives and clouds (and still sometimes disappears), it’s tough to imagine a time when there were simply no backups. Today, if one accidentally scraps an important document, retrieval is usually a simple matter. As long as nobody panics, that can often make retrieving lost data much more difficult. Even if a boneheaded blunder maker data permanently disappear, the infractor can take solace in the fact that they didn’t just delete the moon landing.