The NSA Is Defeated By A 1950s Tape Recorder. Can You Help Them?

One of the towering figures in the evolution of computer science was Grace Hopper, an American mathematician, academic, and Naval reservist, whose work gave us the first programming languages, compilers, and much more. Sadly she passed away in 1992, so her wisdom hasn’t directly informed the Internet Age in the manner of some of her surviving contemporaries.

During her life she gave many lectures though, and as [Michael Ravnitzky] discovered, one of them was recorded on video tape and resides in the archives of America’s National Security Agency. With the title “Future Possibilities: Data, Hardware, Software, and People”, it was the subject of a Freedom Of Information request. This in turn was denied, on the grounds that “Without being able to view the tapes, NSA has no way to verify their responsiveness”. In short, the recording lies on Ampex 1″ reel-to-reel video tape, which the NSA claims no longer to be able to read.

It’s fairly obvious from that response that the agency has no desire to oblige, and we’d be very surprised to find that they keep a working Ampex video system to hand on the off-chance that a passing researcher might ask for an archive tape. But at the same time it’s also obvious that a lecture from Rear Admiral Hopper is an artifact of international importance that should be preserved and available for study. It’s an interesting thought exercise to guess how many phone calls Hackaday would have to make to secure access to a working Ampex video recorder, and since we think for us that number would be surprisingly low it’s likely the NSA know exactly who to call if they needed that tape viewed in a hurry. We don’t have influence over secretive government agencies, but if we did we’d be calling shame on them at this point.

If you’re curious about Grace Hopper, we’ve talked about her work here in the past.

Thanks [F4GRX] for the tip.

Ampex image: Telecineguy., Public domain.

A home-made tape robot that stores VHS tapes

VHS Robot Swaps Tapes, As Seen In Hackers

Tape robots are typically used in places that store vast amounts of data – think film studios and government archives. If you’ve seen the 1995 cult movie Hackers, you might remember a scene where the main character hacks into a TV station and reprograms their tape ‘bot to load a series he wanted to watch. It’s this scene that inspired [Nathan] over at [Midwest Cyberpunk] to make his own tape robot that loads VHS tapes.

[Nathan] has thousands of tapes in his collection, but the robot is not built to manage all of them. Instead, it’s meant to help him run his VHS streaming channel, saving him from having to physically go to his VCR every time a tape needs swapping. For that, a ten-tape storage capacity is plenty.

A custom cyberdeck used to drive a tape robotThe main parts of the tape robot are a grabber that holds the tape, an extender that moves it forward and backward, and a linear rail that moves it up and down. The vertical motion is generated by a hybrid stepper motor through a belt drive system, while the grabber and extender are operated pneumatically. Once the grabber reaches the VCR, a pneumatic pusher shoves the tape inside. All of this is nearly identical to the robot seen in the movie, which was most likely not a commercial machine but a custom-made prop.

The whole system is controlled by an ESP32 running FluidNC inside the robot as well as a handmade cyberdeck next to it that manages the overall process of loading and storing tapes. Although [Nathan] is currently using the robot for his streaming channel, he’s planning to also use it for digitizing part of his massive tape collection, which contains a few titles that were never released on newer formats.

Working with old tapes can be tricky: some types of tape degrade over time, while others might come with primitive copy protection systems. But moving information over to newer media is a necessity if you don’t want to risk losing it forever.

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