Materials and conservation
A collection of notes related to materials and conservation of computers and computer equipment. Some text is copied from other pages on this site.
The changes that accompany a material as it ages encompass a broad class of problems in art and historic conservation, especially for relatively new ones in our material culture, such as plastics, elastomers, and electronic components. A host of physical and chemical transformations can occur. Conservators refer to this as an object's inherent vice:
Eve Kahn eloquently writes about the inherent vice of mid-20th century furniture, a period when industrial designers and architects were exploring innovative forms and ideas with new materials. Some of these works are now changing in surprising and, at times, suddenly disastrous ways -- foams expand and burst through plastic layers, or become brittle and fall apart; plastics abruptly emit liquids and odors, or outright shatter under a person's weight. [Kahn, 2018] And then there is the challenge of stabilizing the 21 layers of fabric, rubber, metal, fiberglass, and a host of synthetic polymers -- polyamides, polyester, neoprene, polytetrafluoroethylene, polyimide, heavily plasticized poly(vinyl chloride) (PVC), polyurethane, polycarbonate, and silicone rubbers -- that make Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's Apollo 11 space suits. [Gordemer, 2019; Madden and Learner, 2014]
Conservation and restoration
According to the American Institute of Conservation, "conservation encompasses all those actions taken toward the long-term preservation of cultural heritage. Activities include examination, documentation, treatment, and preventive care, supported by research and education." Restoration may be a part of a conservation program, but preserving material heritage for study and education does not necessariliy mean returning an object to its original condition. The aim of conservation is to preserve the "historical integrity" of each object.
Objects are meant to use. The changes that accompany that use, including wear and damage, provide insight into their function and circumstance, and may increase their historic and cultural value. [Kroslowitz, 2012] The tendency of right-handed Pac-Man players to tightly hold the game cabinet with their left hand led to patterns of wear that, today, help us imagine the intensity of play in a crowded 1980's arcade, as well as the shear popularity of the machine. [DeSpira, 2019] The worn cabinets let DeSpira create a vivid picture of 80's arcade culture.
Museums document history, and they do this with the utmost focus on transparency. Museum pieces must be an accurate representation of a point in history. Restoration is different. Kroslowitz  writes:
There are good reasons when museums choose to restore objects in their collections. Demonstrations and hands-on use are two particuarly effective educational tools that warrant altering an machine's provenance by bringing it back to an operational state. Of course, that is essentially the hobbyist's objective, too -- to run vintage technology in order to experience (or reexperience) what computing was like thirty or forty years ago -- or even create interesting mashups of old and new.
In this document, I will focus on inherent vice, as it is relevant to both conservation and restoration. With respect to the latter, my objective is to correct or repair damage to return function to a machine, whether it is electronic or mechanical. A good knowledge of the materials enables us to choose restoration methods that are archival and minimize future damage. Every step of the restoration process should be carefully considered and documented. Our knowledge can also inform interventive conservation, the practice of mitigating further deterioration of a conserved object.
What materials are relevant to the electronics and associated devices of the (late) 20th century? What inherent vice or fault do each have? Throughout my restoration of several microcomputers and a teleprinter, I've dealt with brittle and discoloring plastics, polymer foams that fall apart, corroded metals (on machine frames, IC legs, solder joints), liquifying rubbers, hardening elastomers, leaking and exploding capacitors, failed integrated circuits, and gummed-up lubricants.
Aside from changes to their constituent materials, microcomputers and related technologies may fail from mechanical misalignment (disk drives, teleprinter mechanics), loss of electrical contact (movement of ICs in their sockets), and the accumulation of dust and debris.
A list of possible materials and faults:
- Plastics - mechanical changes, breakage, changes in color
- Polymer foams - degradation and breakdown. Some foams become brittle and crumble apart. Conductive foams can become a sticky, gooey mess.
- Adhesives - "CRT rot" when the plastic shield delaminates from a glass CRT. See also this twitter thread failure of the adhesives in an LCD screen.
- Elastomers - hardening, liquification
- Lubricants - gumming or hardening
- Magnetic storage media - floppy disks, hard drives. Floppy disks fail by shedding magnetic material (a breadkdown of the binder?) and sometimes exhibit growth of "molds" on the disk surface according to some. Hard drives fail when the head sticks to the platter, presumably by strong van der Waals forces.
- Metals - corrosion. IC pins may corrode, increasing resistance in their sockets or making the legs fragile. Metal cases corrode and rust. Areas that are soldered on a PC board may corrode due to flux residue.
- Capacitors - failure of tantalum, electrolytic, X2 (RIFA) capacitors. Each of these have documented failure mechanisms caused by aging or changing materials.
- Semiconductors - IC failures. Why do ICs fail? Common failures in my work: 2102 static RAM chips, miscellaneous TTL logic.
- Who is interested in conserving similar objects? Museums of technology, culture and design?
- What programs do they have?
- Where do they communicate and share practices?
- In the arts, time-based media (video and sound artworks, film or slide-based installations, software-based art and other forms of technology-based artworks, which are also often regarded as installation art) likely share these conservation problems.
Notes and references
- DeSpira, Cat. "Pac-Man: The untold story of how we really played the game," February 12, 2019. https://retrobitch.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/pac-man-the-untold-story-of-how-we-really-played-the-game/ Retrieved August 6, 2020. link
- Gordemer, Barry. "Of Little Details And Lunar Dust: Preserving Neil Armstrong's Apollo 11 Spacesuit," National Public Radio, July 11, 2019. link
- Kahn, Eve M. "No, Your Furniture Shouldn't Drip or Burst," New York Times, March 2, 2018. link
- Kroslowitz, Karen, "Preservation, Conservation, Restoration: What's the Difference?" October 26, 2012. https://computerhistory.org/blog/preservation-conservation-restoration-whats-the-difference/ Retrieved August 6, 2020. link
- Madden, Odile and Tom Learner. "Preserving Plastics: An Evolving Material, a Maturing Profession," Getty Conservation Institute Newsletter, Vol. 29, No. 1, Spring 2014.
American Institute for Conservation Wiki Getty Conservation Institute Project on Preservation of Plastics Museum of Obsolete Media Swiss Institute for Art Research (SIK-ISEA) University of Delaware Department of Art Conservation Winterthur Department of Conservation