In early February of 2017 one of the Kryofluxes in the Di Bonaventura Digital Archaeology and Preservation Lab malfunctioned. The Kryoflux is a controller board that allows modern computers to interface with floppy drives. The lab houses two custom-built disk imaging machines, both of which have internally installed Kryoflux boards. They were both built with a large case so there’s plenty of room for additional drives as needed. The case model is a Rosewill Thor and prominently displays “THOR” in glowing red letters when the machine is turned on. To help differentiate between the two they were named Thor 1 and Thor 2. On this day, the Kryoflux inside Thor 2 malfunctioned and started a month-long saga of replacement parts, power cords, and one falsely accused wool sweater.
The Kryoflux in Thor 2 is connected to both a 5.25- and 3.5-inch floppy drive, but it would only start communication with the 5.25-inch floppy drive. After exhausting my options for troubleshooting the software, I opened up Thor 2 to attempt the old IT standby –unplug it and plug it back in. This entailed turning off the machine, opening the case, unplugging and replugging in the kryoflux board. Once everything was plugged back in, I turned on the computer. I hadn’t closed the case yet, so I could see the computer fan start to spin then immediately stop. Nothing turned on. It was like a car’s engine turning over but failing to actually start. I tried again and again the fan started to spin, a light on the Kryoflux board lit up, then everything died again.
On this fateful day, I wore a cotton-candy pink wool sweater to protect from the cold New England library temperatures. As I sat there confused by the Thor 2’s refusal to turn on I came to a terrifying conclusion. The static electricity from my sweater had fried the motherboard. It’s not a common occurrence, but I had heard of other people frying their motherboard with a static charge. My online research led me to believe that a catastrophic failure like this had to be an issue with either the power supply or the motherboard.
In disbelief that my innocent pink sweater could be responsible for this, I tried unplugging and plugging back in the computer and the Kryoflux to no avail. For the next few weeks I tested and replaced several major components. I decided to start with replacing the power supply, but I found the same result. A slight spin of a fan before everything died again. So, I ordered a new motherboard, finally acknowledging that my sweater had brought down the mighty Thor 2. Four hours of installation later Thor 2 had a shiny new motherboard and the exact same failure to turn on. The last recommendation from both online forums and our IT staff was to replace the microprocessor. Having just reinstalled the motherboard, I was familiar with the microprocessor placement process. With the new microprocessor installed, I eagerly turned back on Thor 2, ready to get back to disk imaging and out from underneath my desk. The fan made one rotation before turning back off. With that, I threw my hands up in the air, unsure of what to even try at this point.
I had replaced all the major components with no success, so I started replacing smaller components. I started by unplugging all the cords connected to the Kryoflux. The Kryoflux malfunction started all this, so it made sense to start there. With the Kryoflux disconnected I turned back on the machine and fan started turning, and it kept turning! Then the monitor started to glow! Obviously, I couldn’t capture content from floppy disks with a disconnected Kryoflux board, but I was thrilled to see Thor 2 glowing again. Then, through process of elimination, I determined that the power cord to the 3.5-inch floppy drive was the real culprit. My sweater was exonerated! This small cord providing power to a floppy drive had been shorting out the entire machine. Once the cord was replaced, Thor 2 returned to full function and has been happily disk imaging floppy disks ever since.
Although this was a frustrating experience, it did give me an intimate understanding of the internal workings of our disk imaging machines. If a similar situation arose today, I would spend more time attempting to isolate the problem. Since the problem was system wide, I mistakenly assumed the cause had to be at a higher level than a single cord to a floppy drive. And the final lesson learned, it’s worth it to wear the anti-static bracelet when repairing a computer—if only to assuage any fears about wearing a sweater at work.