Institutional Memory, On Paper

Our own Dan Maloney has been on a Voyager kick for the past couple of years. Voyager, the space probe. As a long-term project, he has been trying to figure out the computer systems on board. He got far enough to write up a great overview piece, and it’s a pretty good summary of what we know these days. But along the way, he stumbled on a couple old documents that would answer a lot of questions.

Dan asked JPL if they had them, and the answer was “no”. Oddly enough, the very people who are involved in the epic save a couple weeks ago would also like a copy. So when Dan tracked the document down to a paper-only collection at Wichita State University, he thought he had won, but the whole box is stashed away as the library undergoes construction.

That box, and a couple of its neighbors, appear to have a treasure trove of documentation about the Voyagers, and it may even be one-of-a-kind. So in the comments, a number of people have volunteered to help the effort, but I think we’re all just going to have to wait until the library is open for business again. In this age of everything-online, everything-scanned-in, it’s amazing to believe that documents about the world’s furthest-flown space probe wouldn’t be available, but so it is!

It makes you wonder how many other similar documents – products of serious work by the people responsible for designing the systems and machines that shaped our world – are out there in the dark somewhere. History can’t capture everything, and it’s down to our collective good judgement in the end. So if you find yourself in a position to shed light on, or scan, such old papers, please do! And then contact some nerd institution like the Internet Archive or the Computer History Museum.

17 thoughts on “Institutional Memory, On Paper

  1. It happens a lot. I worked for a company that had not got the source to two embedded systems that represent a major part of there business. One of my secondary task was to reverse engineer and rewrite them. Over six years, I only ever got one fully functional .

  2. The obvious solution is to go there disguised as a construction worker – all the high vis stuff + helmet + jacket printed with company logo + fake ID. Make sure someone live streams the whole thing on tic-tack.

  3. I… uh… happen to be in the area and could wander by, if they just need someone in person. I’ll even cover the Xerox fees. Doubt it’s that simple though. Might ask if anyone at the Cosmosphere in Hutchinson could lend a hand.

  4. The documents have been moved for safekeeping during construction. Maybe it is best to let the library take care of them until construction is finished, which is expected to be in June. Is there an urgent need to see the documents before then?

    1. I think you might be missing the point slightly. Do you think Indiana Jones would have delayed his quest for the Arc of the Covenant or the Nazi Gold Hoard (I could be confusing 2 different movies here) because of construction work? I think not. The fact that the mission to retrieve the docs is difficult makes it even more interesting and the satisfaction upon success even more intense and will no doubt attract more readers to Hackerday, even if it all results in failure.

    2. …. also, now that the location of the docs has been made public on these pages, there could be other less community minded actors who might want to get their sweaty paws on the docs and keep them for themselves or sell them on the Dark Web.

    3. Well, we _did_ just nearly lose Voyager 1 due to age and degradation. It might be prudent to get these documents into the hands of the engineers involved in maintaining the mission, such as it is. If all the Voyager missions were irreversibly concluded, you would be right of course. But, since the documents are a source of technical information on the craft, there might be info in the documents that is pertinent to keeping that old spacecraft ticking over that the engineers either don’t have, or worse are mistaken about.

      1. Still not urgent though. If their own institution had not misplaced/discarded them, they could have access to them right now. But as they’ve left the task of finding them to a member of the public, and the documents only survive thanks to some other institution, they can shut up and wait until that library is ready to help them out.

  5. Trying to find old software for obsolete test equipment is the same…
    If the program listing isn’t in the manual somewhere, or someone didn’t upload a copy to the aether, often it’s just gone.

    For example, there is a range of HP/Agilent LCR, Capacitance, milliohm and high resistance meters that require software specific to each model to perform adjustment and calibration.
    They work really well, but without that software are impossible to adjust.

    Keysight flatly refuse to even discuss these instruments beyond “obsolete, nope”…

    I’d love to get my hands on the adjustment program for the 4263B or the 4338B models but any would be great (including the , 4338, 4339, 4349, 4263, 4268, 4288, etc etc)
    Then I’ll port to Python and open source it so it doesn’t get lost again…

  6. I’ve email the library special collection requesting information as to when the collection would be available to the public again, as well as their policies on duplication, and access restrictions, however I have not heard back from them. I suspect they may have been over whelmed with requests and are evaluating how to handle the sudden surge of interest. They might not want to let every hamfisted space nerd fondle the documents leaving cheeto dust encrusted fingerprints on them…

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