Data Recovery Exonerates A Man

Every justice system has failures where innocent people are wrongly convicted. A recent story I saw on Mastodon recounts how the Bloop Museum, a technology archive project, was called upon to try to recover crucial data from old floppy disks. Why? Because court records were stored on them, and it was vital to retrieve that information in order to exonerate an innocent man. You can find more details on the museum's Patreon page.

Okay, it was just last year, and the museum received a visit from the Wicomico County Prosecution Integrity Unit. We weren't in any trouble, but any time someone walks through your front door from a department like this, you know you're going to have an interesting day.

Well, it was! After a litany of attempted contacts with various organizations, Patrick and Tracy found our hosts, Maryland Technology Museum, and brought a 5.25" floppy disk. They wanted to get a court record from the disk but couldn't find anyone who even had the gear to read the disk. Once they got the data from the disk, they could make headway in an important court case. For a museum with working computers, this is our time to shine! Right?



During the first visit from the PIU (which does not stand for Pump It Up, a popular dance game from Andamiro) we had to try the basics. We had word that the court reporter used a Dell computer at the time. Even though it was unlikely that a Dell from the mid-90s would be saving to 5.25" rather than 3.5" (check out this NYT article about floppies from 1978!), our hosts made the logical choice: The best thing to try first would be to pop the disk into a PC and see if we could just see and copy data off the floppy using one of our machines armed with an XT-IDE CF. After checking a few machines, however, and spending some time learning about the case, our visit together was already nearly over, and the best we had to show for it was this error message:

The Bloop Museum's Patreon Blog

The author of the piece makes it very clear that they had only a small part to play in the overall story and work that went into freeing Grant Jones from a crime he never committed. And while that is true, the fact that the museum not only took on the task but went deep down the rabbit hole to figure out how to read it is remarkable.

One would think it's a matter of sticking an old floppy disk into an old computer and, boom, there's your data. But back in the "olden days" of computing, floppies all looked the same but were very much not readable by any brand's system other than the one they were written to. If you didn't use the same operating system as another person, the disk would physically fit but never get read. Any Mac user from the 80s and 90s can attest to this madness.

I don't want to spoil the story, so I'll just say to go read it. It feels like a crime thriller wrapped in a mystery. It's a fascinating dive into big reasons why old technology and software need to be preserved.