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Losing the Past (Part 1) (06 Oct 2004)
In our headlong rush to go digital much of our past is becoming just meaningless code of 0s and 1s. A substantial amount of material stored on computers, magnetic tape and even CDs is no longer accessible due to rapid deterioration and obsolescence. The average life of a tape is fifteen years, a CD twenty, computer systems and software far less.

Music and film don't fare much better. Valuable music recordings can't be played anymore because of tape damage. For example, the master tapes of rock classics like the Eagles' Hotel California , or REM's Automatic for the People have fallen victim to "sticky shed syndrome", which means the tape is literally sticking together as its chemical constituents come apart. Other recordings are in better shape, but are still at risk of being lost as the technology has become obsolete, and so the machinery to play them is becoming increasingly rare. While films from the 1920s are so flammable they have to be kept in low-temperature bunkers away from human dwellings.

In Part One of Losing the Past, Richard Hollingham investigates specific examples of what is now unplayable or unreadable. For example, he can reveal for the first time, that the UK population census data from 1951 are lost, as are significant parts of the 1961 and 1971 census data. And he hears from the long-term percussionist of The Grateful Dead, Mickey Hart, why the Grateful Dead, unlike other leading touring bands, still have all their master tapes intact. He also finds out about successful efforts on both sides of the Atlantic for preserving and recuperating sound and music.
Article URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/losing_the_past.shtml
  29.59    (History)  

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