5 Modern Day Treasures That Got Saved In The Craziest Ways
You might think that archaeology is nothing but sifting through the dirt trying to find 3,000-year-old toilet pits. But since we make the past every single day, the whole field of preserving history has had to step up its game. That means we're digging up 20th-century artifacts in places that are far stranger than any viking crapper. For example ...
The Original Lunar Photos Were Recovered From Somebody's Filthy Backyard
From '66 to '67, five NASA lunar orbiters took pictures of the moon's surface to pinpoint the best landing sites to model Stanley Kubrick's set after. These pictures, including the first-ever earthrise image, were beamed directly into magnetic tape decks. And in deference to their lofty purpose, these tapes were preserved with the same dignity afforded to your weird uncle's collection of 1970s amateur porn. They were printed once, in really terrible quality, and then shoved in a dusty box to be forgotten
Fast-forward to 2004, when NASA hackers in an old Usenet group learned that retired archivist Nancy Evans had saved the tapes from being destroyed in 1986. And when they tracked Evans down, they found both the tapes and the refrigerator-sized drives to read them on in her backyard garden shed, surrounded by farm animals. Together, Evans and the hackers launched the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (or LOIRP), tasking themselves with recovering the history trapped inside the hundreds of tapes. They established their base of operations in the greatest symbol of JFK's America: an abandoned McDonald's.
Fortunately, '60s technology was built to survive Soviet missiles, so the chicken-tainted equipment was still intact (if in dire need of disinfecting). Unfortunately, not many people knew how to work the old equipment, since it was, well, old. So the LOIRP started the painstaking work of repairing the drives from scratch, which at one point involved finding a substitute for the now-banned whale oil NASA used to lubricate the tapes.
But the result was worth it. With the equipment up and running, not only could the team access photography previously thought lost, but because those Cold War cameras were actually better than most of the junk we're blasting into space right now, LOIRP was able to digitize the images with modern software, dramatically increasing their quality.
With a much sharper image, these old photos reveal new information, and have been re-uploaded into the Planetary Data System, where they're now being used to correct figures about Earth's previous arctic ice levels and identify climate changes from the '60s. So right in time, then.
A Priceless Vault Of Early Films Was Found Under A Canadian Ice Rink
While film may be the youngest of the great arts (right before memes, of course), it's still old enough for some jaded archivists to hate their job. This is why so much of film history has ended up at the bottom of a pit. Or in this case, the bottom of an ice rink.
In 1978, a bulldozer demolishing an ice rink in Dawson City, Canada uncovered a bunch of weird canisters lying in what looked like an empty underground pool. Local conservator Michael Gates revealed that these canisters contained Silent-Era movies made out of old super-flammable nitrate film, which he determined by holding a match to part of one reel and seeing how quickly it burned to a crisp -- something we hope is an unusual technique in the field of preserving history.
After this discovery, the canisters were gathered up and shipped to various film archives on a military Hercules plane. (Commercial airports refused to fly the reels, because unlike local archaeologists, they were spooked by how dangerously flammable they were.) The contents of the Dawson City archive, or as some news outlets called it, the King Tut's Tomb of Silent-Era Cinema, were then carefully inspected.
Not only was the collection chock-full of old movies which had been presumed lost, but also reels upon reels of news about major historical events. There was footage of an early civil rights march from 1917, the 1920 anarchist bombing of Wall Street, and even visual proof that the White Sox threw the infamous 1919 World Series.
So why was film history chilling out under an ice rink? As it turns out, Dawson City used to be the end of the line for films touring Canadian theaters, and because it wasn't profitable enough to ship them back to Hollywood, they remained there. So in 1928, as the canisters started piling up in the basement of the local library (and occasionally catching fire), one of the caretakers had a crazy genius idea: Why not dump them in a local swimming pool, which was being paved over to make an ice hockey rink? That way, the rink's permafrost could protect the films from the elements, and vice versa.
Surprisingly, the ice rink plan worked like a charm, except for the part where everyone involved eventually forgot they were there and we "discovered" them decades later, in the same manner you "discover" the stale condom you forgot about in the back of your Transformers wallet.
Alan Moore's Lost Masterwork Survived As A Bad Photocopy
In 1988, after he revolutionized the whole medium of comics and wrote most of DC's future box office bombs, real-life Level 13 wizard Alan Moore decided he had enough of writing about buff people in tight spandex. So he started his own publishing company, Mad Love, aspiring to be the punk rock of comic books. And there's nothing more punk than stealing art because you thought it would look better on someone's terrible album cover.
At Mad Love, Moore started to work on a graphic novel called Big Numbers, a story about how the arrival of an American shopping center on the outskirts of a small British city affects its inhabitants lives, which also explores chaos theory and fractal geometry -- you know, regular comic book stuff.
Big Numbers had the potential to disrupt the entire industry and make people take comic books more seriously as literary endeavors. Or it could have, if original artist Bill Sienkiewicz hadn't been forced to withdraw and then been replaced by his teenage assistant, Al Columbia. That's because there was one little issue Columbia failed to mention in his job interview: He hated working on Big Numbers and wanted it gone. Feeling the graphic novel "might have been too clever" to be good, Columbia decided that the best thing he could do for himself and Moore was simply burn everything they had built to the ground. So in a fit of youthful madness, he took his original artwork, chopped it all up, and turned it into a collage for the cover of his roommate's dumb indie rock band, Sebadoh.
Between those Andy Warhol antics and the company's dire financial straights, Moore chose to abandon the project, with only two of the promised 12 chapters published, and the other two forever ruined by Columbia's scissors. That is, until #3 saw a very unexpected release in 2009, when scholar and Moore fanboy Padraig O Mealoid saw an item on eBay that claimed to include not just Big Numbers #1 and #2, but also a "rare unpublished xerox" of #3 for the low, low price of $49.99.
As it turned out, a friend of the seller had worked with Moore on the series, and had been smart enough to hang onto his preview copy of the third chapter. And since there was no legal way for anyone to own a copy anymore, they did the '90s equivalent of putting it on a torrenting site -- they xeroxed a bunch of copies and passed them out to diehard fans, one of whom eventually put his copy up on eBay. And with the moody artist statute of limitations having long expired, Moore gave permission to share the issue in its crude photocopied form on O Mealoid's LiveJournal, where it was quickly overshadowed by Russian pornography.
Curators Are Reassembling Famous Lost Cartoons
Despite (or perhaps because of) a century of Disney princesses, it's hard to think of animation as an affair about which we can twirl our mustaches and have adult conversations. These days, both critics and academics are warming up to the artistic value of cartoons, and finally see the value of bringing Pixar's crudely drawn ancestors back to their full glory.
For years, an international team consisting of researchers from Notre Dame University and Canada's Cinematheque Quebecoise have painstakingly restored one of the first-ever animated films, the 1914 dinosaur cartoon Gertie. Several later editions of the film still exist, but the original (which had a cool proto-Roger Rabbit bit between the cartoon and a live vaudeville performer) was lost to time long ago. But no longer! The team has fully restored the OG version, straight up drawing all the missing scenes by hand, based on extensive academic research. They've even taken their century-old cartoon show on the road.
Behold, the closest to Jurassic park archeologists will ever get!
But Gertie isn't the only early cartoon mascot in need of some touching up. Cinematheque Quebecoise is also working to restore a lost cut of Hen Hop, which Pablo Picasso considered the best thing that had happened to cinema since movement.
Meanwhile, a Croatian team is sifting through 880 pounds of film negatives, positives, and additional materials in an attempt to restore the classic European kids' cartoon Professor Balthasar. Honestly, it sounds easier just to draw some new ones.
A Crack Team Of Engineers Saved Stephen Hawking's Voice
In 2018, we lost Stephen Hawking -- genius scientist, astrophysicist and epic frat boy. But what most people will likely remember, overshadowed only by his incredible ideas, was his iconic robot voice. It's a trait so defining that when Hawking nearly lost his voice for a second time, a team of experts went on a decade-long quest to save it.
After losing his actual voice to ALS in 1986, Hawking used the CallText 5010 text-to-speech system for decades. This tech tanked for the very reason Hawking loved it -- it made you sound like a goofy 1950s robot. In fact, Hawking considered the voice to be so much his own that he categorically refused to ever use anything but the original 5010. But in 2009, with his hardware failing, Hawking's technical assistant and a team of engineers were tasked with finding a way to repair it or lose his voice forever.
The problem was that fixing '80s text-to-speech hardware today is like getting good WiFi on a pager. The team quickly discovered that they were going to have to start from scratch, as the company responsible for the system, Speech Plus, hadn't made replacement parts in decades, what with having gone bankrupt long ago.
After five long years, the team finally approached Eric Dorsey, one of the guys responsible for the synthesizer voice codes. Together, Dorsey and the team traveled the world, eventually finding an old voice board and some dusty schematics at a former work buddy's place, as well as a backup tape of the Hawking voice in an office in Belgium. From that, they managed to build an emulator out of dated Nintendo software and Raspberry Pi.
After over eight years of painstaking work, the emulator was a perfect success, one that let Hawking hang onto his awesome android voice for the rest of his life. Not only that, but with the new updated tech, his unique voice can be preserved until the end of time, where it'll probably be used to herald the rogue AI apocalypse he kept trying to warn us about.
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