2 min read

Rescued by the junk pile

Sometimes it pays not to completely throw away antique pieces of hardware and unused software

Cleaning up, both of the tech room and the brain, always seems like such a good idea, that is until the need for antique technology (and knowledge) rears its head.

That’s happened to me twice in the past few weeks, and it has shown me both how far we’ve come, and how much we have, potentially prematurely, forgotten.

The first situation arose from a frantic e-mail from the help desk: does anyone have a working 5.25 inch floppy drive?

A what? Those things haven’t been in regular use in close to a decade! Many of my colleagues have never even seen such a beast, let alone used one. Yet someone had stored a copy of critical data on a 5.25 inch floppy in 1996, stashed and forgotten it, and now needed to read the disk.

I had vague memories of a drive in an old 386 recently pulled out of service, so went hunting through the techie’s best friend, the junk pile. Sure enough, the PC was there, it had a 5.25 inch drive, and, even more miraculously, it still booted. But the floppy didn’t work (miracle — I actually found a 5.25 inch floppy disk to test with). Opening the box showed why: the way the drives were installed, the floppy cable could not possibly have connected both 5.25 and 3.5 inch diskette drives, so someone had just left the 5.25 inch drive unplugged.

That was easy to fix.

The dust bunnies in the long unused drive were more of a challenge, but a whole lot of spritzing with canned air (and sneezing) later, the drive actually read a disk for the first time this century.

The second retro moment came when a partner, who for some inexplicable reason uses Windows ME, had trouble with Access databases we sent them. The databases worked fine on our Windows 2000 systems, so the only solution was to build a Windows ME box in-house for troubleshooting.

Back to the junk pile, where I discovered an elderly machine that approximated the hardware the partner was using. Since all we could locate was a Windows ME upgrade disk, we had to install Windows 98 and then upgrade it.

In the words of a colleague who also suffered through the experience, I’d forgotten how hard it was. Several hours of dredging out old knowledge ended in success, and we emerged with a new appreciation of how far modern systems have come. We may mutter and complain about Windows 2000 or Windows XP, but compared to what came before, we’re spoiled rotten. It just takes a step back to make us realize it. Many techies today, both in corporations and at resellers, don’t have the experience to take that step.

Those who do can find virtually anything, from old disk drives to esoteric connectors, in their junk bins. In the junk bins of their brains, they can find most of what they need to know to use those bits and pieces they’ve squirreled away. They may not need the hardware, or the information, very often, but when they do, those tidbits can make them heroes.