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For my story I need a data storage device that will be reasonably familiar to adult readers. My character will have obtained this device and know that vital information is stored on it, but not necessarily in what form. It needs to be obsolete so can't just be plugged into any handy laptop or PC, in fact it should be a real hassle to access the data. My initial thought is a 3.5 inch floppy disc but I'm not sure if this is difficult enough to get data off.

As well as the actual storage devise you can also consider factors such as out of date software etc that would be needed and therefore add to the difficulty of opening the data.

My character is highly educated but completely unfamiliar with 21st Century Earth technology, but can access the internet to look things up but will want to avoid anything that may facilitate others tracing them. They have access to cash but not banking/electronic money so e.g would not be able to order anything from the internet or pay for any services online.

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26 Answers 26

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Another suggestion for the humble 3.5" floppy. Formatted by a computer such as the Amiga. The PC floppy controller is extremely limited (because it uses fixed hardware instead of software to do signal decoding). It physically can't read the format used by most other home computers like the Amiga, later Apple II models, Acorn, etc. And USB floppy drives are even worse in compatibility.

So, even if you had a PC with a floppy drive (built-in or USB) you can't read this floppy. This is not a software problem, it requires specialist hardware to overcome. (Such as a special floppy controller like the Kryoflux, or extremely hacky workarounds like attaching two floppy drives to fool the controller to read the "invalid" floppy.)

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    $\begingroup$ Standard PC floppy drive controllers can read Acorn format discs, though sector numbers starting at zero cause problems for the block device interface of the Linux floppy driver. $\endgroup$ – Timothy Baldwin Nov 23 '19 at 19:37
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    $\begingroup$ Loads of really great answers, thank you to everyone, it's really hard to choose just one to accept. I'm going to choose this because it allows me to stick with a 3.5" floppy which I originally wanted and I think that the concept of needing to get hold of a non standard computer (an Amiga or Amiga hardware) will be more explainable/relatable for my readers. I think it will be enough of a challenge for my character who has very little knowledge of earth technology and no address or online money so can't order online or have things delivered easily without spending story time figuring out how. $\endgroup$ – Wiggo the Wookie Nov 24 '19 at 8:14
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    $\begingroup$ A larger floppy disk could also prove daunting. A couple of years back, a German-American cable TV series called Deutschland 1986 had a key plot point in which an East German spy broke into a West German safe to steal Top Secret NATO plans, which turned out to be on a floppy disk. I believe it was a 12 inch floppy - it was certainly bigger than a 5.25 inch - and the East German spy service had a major challenge acquiring something that could read the disk despite being highly motivated to do so. $\endgroup$ – Henry Nov 25 '19 at 12:41
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    $\begingroup$ Even more obscure, a Commodore C64 disk, in 3.5 format, usable only in a late-release Commodore 1581 drive. Many Amigas had build-in 3.5 floppies, but the 1581 drive came late into the Commodore 64 lifespan, and a C64 3.5 adds another layer to used but now rare and obscure. $\endgroup$ – PhasedOut Nov 25 '19 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Henry: I'm sure it must have been an 8 inch floppy, that was the original format, and not unrealistic to be still in use by a government agency in 1986. $\endgroup$ – Michael Borgwardt Nov 25 '19 at 14:54
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SyQuest SparQ Drive

Forget IOMega Zip Disks, any kind of standard floppy, or magnetic tapes. They were too reliable and popular, and therefore will be always relatively abundant, and boring. You need something that was a total market flop and self-destructing: the 1.0 GB SyQuest SparQ removable-disk hard drive.

From Wikipedia

Just a few months after the launch, users began to complain that the drives had serious quality issues, causing them to break. The damage to its public image and warranty obligations of SyQuest were major factors behind the company's bankruptcy.

and most importantly

The SparQ was noteworthy for a serious failure mode which damages SparQ disks in a way that caused them to damage subsequent SparQ drives in which they were placed. Simply putting a broken disk in a SparQ drive will cause the drive to break any new disks placed in that drive. These (broken) disks could break additional drives, breaking most of the drives in an office in short order.

So even if your character has access to a whole stash of SparQ disks and drives, they would likely need to learn how to repair the hardware in order to get the data off the disks. You can really create some drama here. Have the character successfully read some disks before hitting a bad disk that breaks all the drives.

And it's not completely forgotten... as of this writing, I see SparQ disks and drives are still available on Internet auction sites.

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    $\begingroup$ Wow, now that is a proper computer virus! $\endgroup$ – Wiggo the Wookie Nov 23 '19 at 9:09
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    $\begingroup$ Oh my, they actually managed to build a hardware computer virus! hadn't even heard of this (or forgot it) maybe because it flashed by that fast, this one looks like a winner to me [+] :) do you know what the issue with the hardware was that caused it? $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Nov 23 '19 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ There was a class-action lawsuit that probably contains the technical details, but I couldn’t find it in the Wikipedia links. Just from memory, I think it had something to do with the way the disk cartridge opens itself to physically interface with the magnetic head when inserted in the drive. Hard-drive heads require very precise and very close positioning above the disk surface. $\endgroup$ – Alex R Nov 23 '19 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ The ZIP drive had a similar problem (which even got its own nickname: the scary-sounding CLICK OF DEATH!) Fortunately, it never happened to me, but one of my friends lost several ZIP disks because of this. $\endgroup$ – ErikF Nov 24 '19 at 14:13
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    $\begingroup$ @ErikF the zipdrive's "click of death" was not "bi-directionally viral" like the SparQ's $\endgroup$ – Alex R Nov 24 '19 at 17:30
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Iomega ZIP disks.

They were popular in the late 1990s and were useful when the data would not fit on a floppy. They were in widespread use at the time, but now are obsolete. Finding hardware to read these would be a significant hassle.

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ I was gonna suggest its successor, the jaz drive. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Nov 22 '19 at 19:37
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    $\begingroup$ not just the hardware, a lot of people have the hardware, getting it to play well with modern software not so much. $\endgroup$ – John Nov 23 '19 at 2:34
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    $\begingroup$ Right kind of thinking, but wrong choice. The drives are physically small enough that people could save them on a whim. So finding one will be possible. $\endgroup$ – Chris Stratton Nov 23 '19 at 3:57
  • $\begingroup$ I worked at a print shop from ~2005 to 2008. When I started there, Zip disks were already rare. By the time I left, USB drives had them out completely, and I doubt we could've read one if someone had brought one in. Per Wikipedia, it does sound like there are a few niche users for them, but almost entirely for use with retro or legacy systems. So your hero could find someone with the right hardware with some work, but even after they do, that person might still need to jury-rig things to then get the data from the retro system to a modern one. $\endgroup$ – Salda007 Nov 23 '19 at 8:36
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    $\begingroup$ The drives can't be that rare. I have one in my box of spare computer parts. $\endgroup$ – user4574 Nov 23 '19 at 19:38
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Laserdiscs!

laserdisc https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LaserDisc.jpg

These were competitors of VHS and Betamax in the late 1970s. I remember seeing some in Blockbuster Video in the late 90s and wondering what they were. They look cool. Maybe you could hack a CD reader to operate like a record needle...

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    $\begingroup$ Famous for being the only way to get the unbutchered Star Wars in decent quality. $\endgroup$ – R.. GitHub STOP HELPING ICE Nov 23 '19 at 3:49
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    $\begingroup$ The problem here is that AFAIK there was never a way for "normal people" to create these, so it might be a bit of a stretch for plot-relevant data to be on one... $\endgroup$ – Matthew Nov 23 '19 at 4:13
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    $\begingroup$ Laserdisc actually has an analog video signal like videocassette instead of a digital video file like DVD, and is not designed to hold computer data. However it was possible to store computer data encoded as audio tones in the sound track of a laserdisc, in the same way that computer data could be stored on analogue audio cassettes. $\endgroup$ – Robyn Nov 23 '19 at 6:53
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    $\begingroup$ Everyone knows a CD is a "compact disc" what they don't know is what the non compact version is! My elementary? school bought a laserdisc player in the late 90s. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s no longer trusts SE Nov 23 '19 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ There WERE laserdiscs for writing both video and data. These writers were very exotic and very, very expensive. drviragopete.com/laserdisc-svc.php If data was written to one of those, you might need to buy a laserdisc player, then mod it to get at the raw signal from it and convince it to not skip tracks. $\endgroup$ – Prof. Falken Nov 24 '19 at 1:07
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Magnetic Tape

Like those old cassette tapes or video tapes, but for computers. They were (and still are) used for archival storage, but mostly in the server space and would require special hardware to read.

Or an actual Cassette Tape

It is possible to use a standard audio cassette tape to store data This could also lead to some humorous misunderstandings, and send him down an wild goose chase.

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    $\begingroup$ I really like the audio tape idea, because it would be confusing, but in actuality it would really easy to read. You could just record the audio, and then process it with audio software. $\endgroup$ – Nate White Nov 22 '19 at 20:51
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    $\begingroup$ @NateWhite : Huh! yeah didn't think of that myself, just play it as audio on a tape deck straight into a PC microphone & save it as a sound file, only thing you need then to read it is the appropriate simulator, of course if you don't know which computer (Commodore, Atari, whatever) & OS it was recorded with could take a LOooong time going through them all :) used to be able to straight audio copy games to share at school tape to tape on a tape deck, that's going back a bit. $\endgroup$ – Pelinore Nov 22 '19 at 23:33
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    $\begingroup$ Indeed, magnetic tape. But not just any magnetic tape. Something from the 60's where the drives were huge refrigerator-sized machines, so hard to preserve and move. Late enough (multi-track and sufficiently high density) for jury rigging something to be very challenging technically, early and obscure enough for there to be essentially no market for conversion services. If that's too early, then some specific 80's or 90's tape format that never really caught on and lost commercially to its competitors even before it was technically obsolete. $\endgroup$ – Chris Stratton Nov 23 '19 at 4:02
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    $\begingroup$ In the eighties in Europe, the most common homecomputers used something called "datasette", for example the Commodore C64, or the in the UK more popular Sinclair Spectrum en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ZX_Spectrum#Distribution en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodore_Datasette $\endgroup$ – user2567875 Nov 23 '19 at 8:31
  • $\begingroup$ I still have my first home computer, an Apple II, that used audio cassettes. $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Nov 23 '19 at 17:39
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An Amstrad PCW 3” (not 3½”) floppy disk. The PCW was very popular in Europe in the late 80s, but hasn’t been manufactured since 1998. And even if you can find a working PCW, getting the data off that machine onto something else will also be a challenge.

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    $\begingroup$ This answer deserves more love. The uniqueness of the form factor, the data format and the difficulty getting the data out of the PCW system is significant. $\endgroup$ – Dancrumb Nov 24 '19 at 22:38
  • $\begingroup$ Beat me to it! I still have stuff on those... $\endgroup$ – David Hambling Nov 28 '19 at 15:28
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Depends on how difficult you want to make it for the protagonist. If faced with an unfamiliar physical item, a quick question at Retrocomputing Stackexchange will be enough to identify it. And then its just a question of enough dedication, money and asking the right retrocomputing nerd^Wexpert.

Some possibilities:

  • An audio tape from the 8-bit era. There were myriad of home computers with widely incompatible, sui generis audio formats. Although possible to reverse engineer given some patience and oscilloscope (or Audacity today), still not an easy task. And decoding the raw data stream will not give you readable text or anything.
  • 3 inch floppy - finding a working drive to read the data would be a challenge (but not an impossible one). Alternately, 2½ or 2 inch floppy.
  • Microdrive tape - difficult to find working drives, and the tapes could be damaged slightly more that other magnetic media, especially if used often in the past
  • consider "standard" media, e.g. punched cards, but with an obsolete non-latin encoding (and of course in a different language). E.g. from the good old USSR era. It will decode but read like gibberish.
  • several of the then-emerging VHS tape backup solutions. Quite obscure, and the medium is a standard VHS tape, but even if the protagonist finds a VHS player, he'll find it unplayable.
  • retro upon retro! 8-bit-era data audio recording on vinyl disk. These were very rare, but, unlike magnetic tapes, should be durable enough. Again, the protagonist finds a working gramophone only to find out the vinyl contains some strange computer sounds.
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  • $\begingroup$ Came here to say this: various proprietary hacks to use VHS as a backup medium, including for the Amiga hugolyppens.com/VBS.html $\endgroup$ – Jonathan Moore Dec 3 '19 at 15:32
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Punch cards/tape

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punched_card / https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punched_tape

No punch working card/tape reader to find anywhere, so must be read without direct computer help. (Just do not allow them use scanner and try OCR it. Or you may let them discover this way later in your story, when you want them read all the big archive in some real time - still they need to write something to convert it from pictures to numbers and found out the meaning)

Ideally punched on puncher out of ink, so basically only holes in paper. Still can be deciphered manually by translating holes to bytes, eventually to characters (if they are not just numbers) and then deciphered the meaning, as they may be just memory dump of mixed records, contaning both strings and numbers.

Not too hard to convert it (for few characters), but totally slow and boring and error prone. (And must be carefull to not mix the cards (eg. dropping it on floor by accident) and not harm the paper).

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a good answer. It depends on what age group the OP includes; I have punch cards in my house because there's data that a family member took home from working as a scientist. $\endgroup$ – Snack_Food_Termite Nov 23 '19 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ I have punchcards at home, as there are some programs I wrote myself (and much more to make notes and otherwise use as good hard paper). Also some tapes, used mainly to do christmass decorations and some "holes" as confetti too :) --- Still the main char IS told, that there ARE important data, and is highly educated - so he should hear about them and surely he should hear about hyeroglyphes, Morse, codes and about bytes and few similar things (not actually be skilled with, but at least know the general concept) so he should be able to try to decipher the unknown coded data and succeed at last. $\endgroup$ – gilhad Nov 23 '19 at 14:09
  • $\begingroup$ There's actually a company in Texas, Sparkler Filters, who use an IBM 402 on a daily basis. Like they say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it! And this system ain't been broke since just after WWII! Punch cards are also used in many other places (time clocks, US savings bonds, etc). Difficult, but not impossible to deal with. $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Nov 23 '19 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ The problem is that, if you know the standard codes (and there is plenty of documentation of them on the web) you can read cards and tape with nothing more that your own eyes and a pencil to write down what is on the tape. Back in the day, there were plenty of computer operators who could read paper tape just by looking at it. $\endgroup$ – alephzero Nov 23 '19 at 19:04
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    $\begingroup$ @alephzero Yes, you can read it with eyes and pencil - just if you are not trained in it, it will took ages and gallons of coffee - which is, what OP wanted :) On our university (Prague-Czech-Europe) was no sequence numers used. Also hero does not have sorting machine at home and does not want attract curiosity (as OP stated). So this is all bonus - hero is suppose to be able to solve it in hidden, but after long and hard struggle - unable to buy actual devices the time and struggle is ensured, being documented (and even solvable by sheer IQ and patience) success at last is ensured too :) $\endgroup$ – gilhad Nov 24 '19 at 1:28
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In addition to some already-excellent hardware answers...

Something using full disk compression

Well before NTFS and cheap storage, there were programs that would implement drive compression to try to eke out a little more storage. I remember using DoubleSpace. Something like this, especially that only runs under DOS, will present non-trivial challenges.

Something "encrypted"

There were some screwy encryption schemes back in the day. If the data is hidden with something like Encrypted Magic Folders, you'll probably have a heck of a time getting it unless you know the exact manner in which it was hidden.

If you really want to make the data hard to get, don't forget about Steganography. For that matter, I seem to recall writing my own encryption utilities back in the day; they probably aren't very good from a serious cryptography standpoint, but since you're going for data that is hard, not impossible, to retrieve, security through obscurity is your friend.

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  • $\begingroup$ This. I have Stacker volumes with slight corruption (last I had a DOS system to read them, it didn't want to mount them) that I've been wanting to try to recover for decades, but it's too much of a hassle. But even without the corruption it'd be a pain to setup a version of DOS compatible with the Stacker drivers or even find the drivers. $\endgroup$ – R.. GitHub STOP HELPING ICE Nov 23 '19 at 3:48
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    $\begingroup$ This reminds me of the good old days where you could use a hole puncher to double storage capacity of a floppy disk :) ... which has nothing to do with the question at hand, though $\endgroup$ – Hagen von Eitzen Nov 23 '19 at 13:59
  • $\begingroup$ "Well before NTFS and cheap storage, there were programs that would implement drive compression to try to eke out a little more storage." Say hi to very modern BTRFS with compression support. It isn't that totally gone :-) $\endgroup$ – val says Reinstate Monica Nov 23 '19 at 22:53
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    $\begingroup$ @val: I thought that was already a reference to NTFS having a built-in compression feature (pointing out that it wasn't the first such system). $\endgroup$ – user1686 Nov 24 '19 at 12:20
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The original floppy! 5 1/4 inches.

The hardware would need to connect using ports no longer available. Would need PCI, no pci express nor Sata. PCI.

Also there are no drivers for new Operative Systems. So need to find a working Win 95 or Win 3.11.

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    $\begingroup$ The 'original' floppy was 8.5" $\endgroup$ – Joe Nov 22 '19 at 19:24
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    $\begingroup$ There are more operating systems familes than just windows, you know. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Nov 22 '19 at 19:38
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think 5¼ is any harder to access than 3½ if you have a drive. I want to say they use the same connectors, protocols, etc. Of course, whether or not data stored on such disks is still viable is an interesting question. (And to Starfish Prime's point, I would guess that Linux still has the necessary kernel drivers...) $\endgroup$ – Matthew Nov 22 '19 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ Essentially every claim made here is grossly wrong, even those about the technology in the day (PCI came long after). As for interface USB, and the fact that the 3.5 drives you'll readily find use the same interface as the older ones. In the very unlikely event there is no software support in recent windows, there most certainly is in Linux. You'd have to go to 8" before it gets hard, but even that has published solutions. $\endgroup$ – Chris Stratton Nov 23 '19 at 3:59
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    $\begingroup$ 5¼ predate PCI. Even 3½ floppies predate PCI. $\endgroup$ – Radovan Garabík Nov 23 '19 at 7:35
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DataPlay

DataPlay discs are relatively easy to find, including blank ones that will let you put anything on them that you want (mind, they're write-once media), but players for them are so incredibly difficult to locate that Techmoan did a video about the format only after he'd gotten a hold of a working player. Only for it to fail between recording shots in his hands before he could even sample all of the discs he had. They also require proprietary software to run (PC side), which while still available, looks so retrofuturistic its a painful reminder of what the 80s thought that 2010 thought the 80s looked like.

The discs are the compact version of MiniDisc (which are themselves miniature CDs) and housed in a tiny case similar to 3.5" floppy discs and about an inch wide. Every player/drive in existence would have used the same plug-and-play module all produced by the same factory for distribution and use in whatever device the buyer wanted to include it in. The problem was, there were no buyers.

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  • $\begingroup$ It would be extraordinarily difficult to find anything that can read DataPlay media these days. This was obscure when it was new! $\endgroup$ – Michael Hampton Nov 24 '19 at 3:27
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelHampton Yeah, the one that Techmoan got a hold of was a pre-production prototype that one of the engineers that designed the thing sent him. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s no longer trusts SE Nov 24 '19 at 3:47
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There are two 3.5" floppy answers, but I would like to answer a third one. Specifically, this answer happily allows the floppy to have a standard FAT filesystem as used by MS-DOS or Microsoft Windows. The trick is that this disk must be formatted as 1.44MB, but have originally sold as a 720kB disk. In reality, these were actually 1.44MB disks that didn't quite meet quality control standards, so they got downrated to 720kB as they would pass reliability tests that way. However, all that was necessary was that you punched a small notch in the side of the disk and it would be recognized as and could be formatted to hold 1.44MB... for a while.

I used this trick when I was a poor college student, and it worked quite well. Until one day I went to use a different machine in the computer lab, and suddenly the disk was unreadable. Often the disk would simply start developing bad sectors at an abnormally high rate even in the same drive.

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HD-DVD. Not only did they lose the format war, but the “winner” (blu-ray) also lost. Everyone moved over to the cloud. Your hero of the future will become an expert in the difference between a CD reader, a DVD reader, an HD-DVD reader, and a Blu-ray reader. The disc will technically fit in each tray, but only one will work.

And if your hero is unfortunate enough to miss the distinction between an internal HD-DVD Player and an external HD-DVD player, good luck finding an HDMI-to-FutureDisplayFormat adapter. I sure hope they still have the remote, or then you get to find a universal remote and pray it pairs up.

Actually, I don’t even know if HD-DVD players used remotes? I never had one.

For extra absurdity, your hero might finally find an HD-DVD player...as a homemade upgrade to a vintage 2008 Lincoln Navigator backseat theater system.

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    $\begingroup$ meh ... in practice every blue-ray drive currently available - especially if sold as blue-ray writer - can still at least read hd-dvd as the laser frequency is quite similar. The only point the blue-ray drive will miss are the copy-protection scheme and virtual machine data. But as pure data-discs are part of the standard, you can still read those. $\endgroup$ – eagle275 Nov 25 '19 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ HD-DVD players definitely used remotes, as did pretty much all DVD players before them and most VCRs before that. It would've been idiotic to release HD-DVD players when they did without remotes, which had become a standard expectation on all media players by that time. $\endgroup$ – Darrel Hoffman Nov 25 '19 at 16:19
  • $\begingroup$ I feel like this meets the specifications of OPs question. Familiar to the reader, but would be a significant effort to recover. $\endgroup$ – Nathan Goings Nov 25 '19 at 23:25
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Any 3.5 floppy disk.

Particular any holding data from a now defunct older PC that used its own operating system rather than windows or DOS, even more so if it was one that didn't sell that many units in the first place.

If you want something more difficult go for a 5.25 floppy or even an old tape drive.

I have old PC's with all 3 in the loft so depending on the OS they were written to with I 'might' be able to get into any of those 3 (not without several hours of mucking around to get them working & refresh myself on how DOS or whatever OS they have works though), but most people won't have.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Nov 28 '19 at 13:58
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One of the many incompatible streaming tape formats. Not only would you need a tape drive in working order, but an interface card for that drive, a computer that could use that card, and finally the correct software to read it. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quarter-inch_cartridge

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A Wang minicomputer hard drive. Wang minicomputers were reasonably popular in 1970s:

The most identifiable Wang minicomputer performing recognizable data processing was the Wang 2200 which appeared in May 1973. Unlike some other desktop computers such as the HP 9830, it had a CRT in a cabinet that also included an integrated computer controlled cassette tape storage unit and keyboard. Microcoded to run interpretive BASIC, about 65,000 systems were shipped in its lifetime and it found wide use in small and medium-size businesses worldwide. // Wikipedia

so that some even made it into the USSR at around 1980:

During the 1970s about 2,000 Wang 2200T computers were shipped to the USSR.

They looked approximately like this:

Wang 2200 minicomputer and some peripherals

I personally was let to sit and fiddle with one occasionally. They had text monitors and some kind of BASIC. The one I sat at, was used to store and print patient lab reports in a clinic.

The good thing? This was how hard drive looked like approximately. 14" 2.5MB capacity:

A 14" 2.5MB hard drive. This one is from a Palo Alto computer, but Wang had something quite similar

Good luck finding an intact Wang to attach it to, or the docs for the interface.

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    $\begingroup$ Have you considered "entering a link description here"? $\endgroup$ – Draco18s no longer trusts SE Nov 23 '19 at 17:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Draco18s I will edit the question from PC. The stack exchange app reacts badly to image uploads $\endgroup$ – Gnudiff Nov 23 '19 at 21:18
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    $\begingroup$ Ha! Wang! I was thinking Weiss terminal but this is basically the idea. $\endgroup$ – Kai Qing Nov 25 '19 at 20:21
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    $\begingroup$ In the 1980s the Russians cloned the Wang 2200 products and these clones were used in a lot of data processing and statistical work there. Recently one sold in Estonia for EUR600, condition unknown. $\endgroup$ – KalleMP Dec 3 '19 at 10:28
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Bubble memory cartridge from obsolete SHARP (or other) portable computer.

http://www.wylie.org.uk/technology/computer/bubblmem/bubblmem.htm

EDIT: One interesting plot point may be the near attempt to open the memory module which would immediately erase all the data. Or perhaps realising too late and loosing one of the datasets leaving only one older version of it.

Or PDP-11 core memory modules.

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1/2" magnetic tape. It came in 2 varieties: 7 track and 9 track.

Interestingly enough, I am told that NASA has a bunch of data from the early 1960s on 7 track tape. The magnetic domains are "punching through" the vinyl backing and causing neighboring domains to flip from 1 to 0 or 0 to 1.

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There was the original floptical format which predated (and eventually evolved into) the iOmega Zip and Imation LS-120 "superdrive". Only about 70,000 drives were ever produced, mostly going into SGI Indigo and Indy workstations.

I think you'd be hard pressed to find a working drive today.

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  • $\begingroup$ I would recommend iOmega Zip. I used that as a kid often, but would have a difficult time extracting the data given OPs constraints. $\endgroup$ – Nathan Goings Nov 25 '19 at 23:21
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Anything that was even remotely successful as a commercial computer storage device will likely not suit your purpose, if only because there will be a surviving working model or schematics somewhere. (There always is.)

What you are looking for is something that is well known, obsolete, not intended for computer storage, used for computer storage. VHS and Betamax videotapes fit the bill, possibly also 8-track cassettes.

If you want something really exotic (but fills few of your filtering criteria), take a look at Valdemar Poulsen's telegraphone.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I remember investigating a video tape backup interface way back when. That would be a rare standard that might be hard to read. $\endgroup$ – KalleMP Nov 27 '19 at 21:29
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The hardest I can imagine is a magnetic core memory with corroded wires. The individual magnetic rings are still intact but the wires have become so rusty that they decay to dust when you touch them.

Your character has to use tweezers to carefully break each magnetic ring out of the original matrix, clean it and thread it onto new wires in the correct orientation (because threading a ring wrong way round would result in a flipped bit in the data).

Of course the memory should not be one of the really old ones, where each magnetic ring has a diameter of a quarter inch. The newer memories (well "new" is maybe not the right word. Those memories are still from the 60's) have magnetic cores which are hardly recognizable with the naked eye.

When your character has finally repaired the memory he has to solder something so he can access the data on the memory. Of course he has to build another core memory for testing because reading a core memory destroys the data on the rings. After that he maybe has to find out what the meaning of the data is.

Another idea:

Once there were wire recorders that used thin steel wire to record audio on them. Of course these can also be used for storing digital data (like the Datasettes in the C64 did). If you ever had a tape jam, you can multiply that by 100 to imagine a wire jam that could happen. So maybe your character finds a big mess of what appears to be steel wool, but in fact is a recorded wire that he has to untangle and then find a wire recorder to play it.

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  • $\begingroup$ +10 I love both ideas. It also has strong realworld examples with the team that went to crazy lengths to read out the core memory and rope memory from the Apollo Guidance Computer parts that they managed to get access to in spite of the various wiring and semiconductor failures. Start here and be amazed (5 to 10 hours of video follows) youtube.com/watch?v=2KSahAoOLdU $\endgroup$ – KalleMP Dec 3 '19 at 10:10
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It's where they're from, not when that makes them unfamiliar with current earth technology.

Where this is the case, the most important factor is how easy a thing is to describe to a search engine. When you take away pre-existing knowledge of our civilization's technology, typing in keywords like "disk", "drive", "media storage", etc can bring up pictures you can match with a lot of our older storage tech to help set you on the right track to research what you are looking for. If your storage item has any kind of serial number or labeling on it, you can simply explain that away through some scuff marks leaving only the form of the item to be searchable.

This means the best obstacle you can put in an extraterrestrial's way may not necessarily be technological, but cultural. An unlabeled CD is easy enough to describe to find information about, but if an alien sees a 1st generation ipod nano and Googles something obvious like "small silver data storage box with a circle on front", he will not be able to figure out what it is to even begin cracking its secretes.

enter image description here

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  • $\begingroup$ It's where they're from, not when that makes them unfamiliar with current earth technology. $\endgroup$ – Wiggo the Wookie Nov 25 '19 at 18:18
  • $\begingroup$ Apple products have model and serial numbers laser marked on the back in tiny text. The iPod shuttle range and similar had the details under the clip. $\endgroup$ – KalleMP Dec 3 '19 at 10:26
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Western Digital and perhaps Seagate drives after 2010 have some kind of file allocation table stored on a different chip which exists on the hard drive's circuit board. Previously if a HDD was overvolted and the circuit board was fried, you would just buy a circuit board for the same drive and fit it on, and solder the old file allocation data chip from the old HDD board to the new HDD board, and it is running. These days, you have to send an HDD to a recovery center if you fry the circuit board, because there are some obscure file allocation files which are irretrievably scrambled if you fry the HDD management board.

So, if you had any recent HDD, especially the WD ones, and an event upsets the HDD board, you have to umount every HDD disk one after the other in some kind of dust proof room and get the data onto a new disk using forensic methods, and then use a decoding program to find what kinds of files are where.

The forensic mathods to copy a drive at home would be pretty fascinating.

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    $\begingroup$ Possible, but much more likely that these flash chips store some physical calibration data (parts of the "low-level formatting" done in the factory), rather than file allocation tables (which are OS-managed and the disk firmware doesn't know their structure, so they have to be stored on the same magnetic medium). $\endgroup$ – user1686 Nov 24 '19 at 12:23
  • $\begingroup$ This is software over hardware—which I think is against the spirit of OPs question. More of a technicality than a novelty. Also, the repair methods that shops use aren't unlike yours—just a lot smaller and more precise components to replicate. $\endgroup$ – Nathan Goings Nov 25 '19 at 23:23
  • $\begingroup$ I was Soldering software? $\endgroup$ – aliential Nov 26 '19 at 5:59
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I read in New Scientist that there was a generation of PlayStation CDs that had copy protection by filling the whole first track with zeros. If you tried to copy the disk in a standard drive the error correction would fix some of the bits. The PlayStation would then refuse to play it. Someone burying a time capsule used this format for the data, but did not include a player in the capsule. They were hard to find a few years later.

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Adhesive Tape!

Not sure if this completely answers your question, but here is an obscure one I came across years ago...

https://www.geek.com/news/a-new-use-for-adhesive-tape-storage-544670/

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There are plenty of old tape formats that are no longer supported. The real question is when would someone have written data to the storage device. When I was in college I worked in the computer center for my college backing up our Digital Vax cluster to 9 track real to real tape. If you are saying that the data was backed up before 1992ish then 9 track makes sense. After that IBM 5150 cartridges, DLT cartridges would also make sense. Take a look at this wiki page and see which type of tape makes sense. There have been so many types of tapes drives and each one only works for certain tapes. Picking some type of tape drive makes sense if you want the character to have to search for the right drive and right computer to restore the data. Also think about the type of data. Because you want it to make sense that the data would be on a certain type of computer. Vaxes were real time systems. IBM main frames were more likely business data. SGI or Sun Microsystems would make sense for scientific.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tape_drive

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