Luster Lost

Pondering the way that physical objects, like newspapers and photos, degrade over time, and why digital objects won’t fade in exactly the same way.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: There’s this effect I often refer to when talking about digital photography. Old photographs, for whatever reason, tend to age themselves significantly over time, as the formats reflect older processes for making pictures, as well as the general effects of age. But digital photos, while not nearly as high a resolution as a modern pro-quality camera can take, do not age themselves quite so quickly. So as a result, pictures on Flickr that are nearly 20 years old at this point often manage to look like they were, for all intents and purposes, taken yesterday. As time goes on, the baseline for quality improves. Same with music: A pop song from 1998 generally doesn’t draw too much attention to its age on modern radio compared to a song from 1988, in part because digital recording formats like ProTools had become common by that point. But decay is always around the corner, and today’s Tedium talks all about the way things fade. — Ernie @ Tedium

Today’s GIF is from a video produced by the Getty Museum showing the delicate nature of restoring old drawings.

Newspapers #1

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Newsprint Degrade

(Jon Tyson/Unsplash)

Why newsprint changes color and even degrades over time

As a former newspaper guy, I have a lot of old newspapers. They sit on a shelf and are useful to look at, as they remind me of a past life before I worried about things like digital decay.

Recently, I pulled some of those old papers off the shelf, and to my surprise, they were more yellowed than I remember. At this point, most of my papers are about 13 to 15 years old, and not particularly fresh-looking, even though the design style was fairly modern in appearance.

Now, they weren’t totally screwed. Just not exactly hot-off-the-presses, if you get my drift.

My solution to preventing further decay? I put them in a closet. No, this is not perfect. But it turns out that it might actually be a better approach than what I was doing.

One challenge of preserving newsprint is that newsprint is inherently low-quality material. It’s cheap; it’s not designed to be archived. Much of it ends up wrapping fish and filling shoeboxes.

And the material, in the grand scheme, is relatively new. When Charles Fenerty, a Canadian inventor, noticed that rag paper—literal paper from cloth—was facing shortages, he came up with the idea of producing paper from wood pulp. While his invention was groundbreaking, his business skills were not: It took him three years to publicize his invention to a nearby newspaper, the ‌Acadian Recorder, and he never patented the creation, ensuring that it would become widespread, but he wouldn’t see much benefit from it himself.

This invention of a wood pulp material for publishing was significant in that it helped cut the costs of raw material and ensured that there wouldn’t be quite so many supply constraints. (Of course, modern newspapers seem allergic to newsprint.)

The problem, though, is that wood is made from cellulose, which tends to best maintain its strength when the paper is made of long fibers, as the Library of Congress explains. Newsprint is produced through a process of mechanical pulping, which is basically the worst possible way to produce paper if your goal is to keep it around for hundreds of years.

But cellulose in general has challenges as a preservation medium. Cellulose, the LOC notes, naturally produces acids over time which tend to degrade within the paper over time. And even strong paper fibers tend to degrade over time.

Additionally, there’s a common type of polymer in woods called lignin, which helps to create rigidity for the plant. This structure is key to many types of heavy paper, as How Stuff Works notes, but it tends to be removed from high-quality white paper, which is often bleached. Why is that? Easy: because lignin encourages oxidation of the paper, which creates the yellowing effect.

So, while wood pulp was revolutionary for publishing because of its ability to allow for fast production, it was not designed to last very long in its natural form. Ironically, the material that wood pulp replaced, rags, actually holds up much better to the elements, according to the LOC.

“While fibers may shorten with age, rag papers tend to remain strong and durable, especially if they have been stored properly in conditions not overly warm or humid,” the website explains.

So in one sense, it’s unfortunate that my newspapers weren’t printed on rags, because they would be in better condition for hundreds of years to come. But in another, that cheap paper made the newspaper industry viable, which probably allowed me to work in the newspaper industry for a number of years. So I guess we’ll call it even.

>50

The number of years newsprint is expected to last, even under the best of conditions, according to reporter Dana Aiken Tobey, who researched the issue for a story on protecting historic newspapers that is seen as a great guide for preservationists.

UV Lighting

(Serge Kutuzov/Unsplash)

The greatest enemy of physical objects may be ultraviolet light

But there’s another problem we have to discuss when it comes to yellowing and objects. And if you have followed retro tech sometime in the past couple of decades you might know a lot about this.

So, plastics in particular tend to naturally yellow over time, particularly when fully exposed to sunlight. Sunlight is, of course, bright and lightens up a room, but it also contains ultraviolet light, which is invisible but can damage objects over time. (It also negatively impacts skin, and is a known cancer risk.)

This is a problem for any objects that people look to preserve, like old newspapers like I talked about above. The room where the newspapers sat generally does not have open drapes, in part because I’m also using a computer in there, but enough light does get in that it does likely allow some UV in. So as a result, it was getting impacted by UV rays, on top of all the other bad stuff that impacts newsprint.

And just because you keep old objects inside doesn’t mean they won’t avoid the effects of yellowing. Most kinds of light bulbs sold during the period of early retro computers emitted some kind of ultraviolet light. In fact, fluorescent light bulbs (including in their compact variety) tend to emit a lot of it, requiring heavy phosphor coating, while incandescent bulbs tend to produce light from a broad spectrum, including ultraviolet rays.

The good news in the modern day is that LED lighting, while also being more energy efficient, is a quite pure light source, which means that it produces few rays of UV. And that has opened up a lot of new avenues for those that rely on having UV-free light sources, such as museums.

A 2015 Wired piece discussed how the museum industry was moving to LEDs after years of relying on incandescent lighting that had UV filters on it to help remove such lighting. Of course, LED lighting on its own has some negative elements, like blue light, and can feel unnatural, but with the right use of phosphors, it can get pretty close to the real thing.

“The difference isn’t perceptible,” Yale conservationist scientist Jens Stenger told the outlet. “If you don’t have a direct comparison, it’s hard to recognize the difference with the naked eye.”

In part because of these lighting issues, retro fans have taken to fighting decay with decay. Texas retro fan David Murray, better known as The 8-Bit Guy, and his brother, Mike, who runs The Geek Pub, are probably the best-known experimenters when it comes to retrobright (or “Retr0bright,” if you’re a hacker), with David in particular having developed a number of techniques, such as covering materials with peroxide cream and submerging plastics in tubs of hydrogen peroxide on a hot day. The combination of hydrogen peroxide and UV light creates a chemical effect that can help to temporarily reverse or at least hide the impact of the yellowing.

TRS 80 Yellowed

An example of a pre-retrobrighted computer case. (Wikimedia Commons)

An academic-style paper on retrobright [PDF] written by Saltypretzel, a high school student, and published on Hackaday earlier this year, explains why the process is necessary, and why UV light actually takes things somewhat further. (Saltypretzel, birth name Caden Xu, actually conferred with a professional polymer chemist to explain the effect.)

The long and short of it is that a common process for producing injection-molded plastic of the kind used in retro computers, acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene, creates material that does not react well to UV light. But the retrobrighting doesn’t really stop the process, so much as take it further, to hide its impact.

TRS 80 Retrobright

The same case as above, after a retrobright treatment. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Contrary to popular belief, the Retr0bright process does not actually fix the plastic; it just bleaches the plastic,” Saltypretzel wrote.

Which is why the odds are good that, unless you keep your retro computers in a room brightened by only LED light, with no impact from the sun or other UV light sources, you’re likely going to have to retrobright the device again in a few years.

On the plus side, at least we have an understanding of UV light’s role in the degradation of objects so we have that option!

1942

The year Kodak first introduced its coupler-incorporated chromogenic print process, a key process for printing color photos in a mass-produced paper format. This process, over time, has improved, creating photo prints that hold up better and better with age. This process, according to researcher Ann Fenech (who wrote a doctoral thesis on this topic in 2011), is responsible for 99 percent of all color prints produced today.

Faded Photo

(anyjazz65/Flickr)

The photographic print’s long fade … literally

So, one more point of discussion on degradation here, and it’s the one I mentioned at the top of the piece. We can often tell the age of a photographic print based on the type of material the photograph is on (standard print, Polaroid), the way it was shot, as well as any signs of age or graininess. Sometimes, the photos will even be conveniently timestamped.

Now, signs of degradation are nothing new. An 1891 piece in The Photographic Times highlighted how concerns about photographic degradation were so severe that it was the topic of a Photographic Society of London meeting in 1855, which led to a paper that discussed the impact of the poor cleaning of a primary development agent of photographic film, hyposulphite of soda (also known as sodium thiosulfate).

This meeting led to a set of recommendations to discourage the degradation of photos, which I’ll recreate here:

  1. That the greatest care should be bestowed upon the washing of prints after the use of hyposulphite of soda, and for this purpose hot water is very much better than cold.

  2. The majority of the Committee think that gold, in some form, should be used in the preparation of pictures, although every variety of tint may be obtained without it.

  3. That photographs be kept dry.

  4. That trials be made of substances likely to protect the prints from air and moisture, such as caoutchouc, gutta percha, wax, and the different varnishes.

Of course, other issues are factors in photo decay in the modern day, as photo-development technology has evolved. Kodak Digitizing notes that the aforementioned sunlight is a major factor behind photo degradation, but it’s not the only one.

Another factor, which you might have guessed from the fact it came up when we discussed newsprint, is contact with acid—particularly, as author Christian Roemer notes, in tape form.

“The adhesive that makes tape sticky can also seep into the photos and cause the color molecules to get all screwy,” Roemer writes. “That’s why it’s best, when you’re hanging or framing photos, to not use any acidic paper or tape to mount them.”

It’s not the only problem, however. One common issue that can cause problems for photographs is something called “foxing,” in which stains appear on old photographs over time. These are usually the result of mold or mildew that impact the photograph, creating deterioration of the surface on which the photograph is mounted.

The Australian New South Wales Government’s office of State Archives and Records has an in-depth guide about foxing and the challenges it creates from an archival perspective. Simply put, fixing foxing is not easy:

“Foxing” is very difficult to remove. Some spots can be reduced by the aqueous treatment of the document or photograph, however these treatments do pose a risk to the item and must be undertaken in a controlled environment by specialist conservators. Some people advocate the use of peroxide or sunlight bleaching to reduce or remove foxing spots in paper documents—however bleaching is a risky treatment for most items to undergo and there is evidence that the spots are not removed permanently—returning after a number of years.

Vintage Book

A scan of a vintage book with signs of “foxing.” (via TexturePalace)

Foxing is not unique to photographs—it can also affect paper, and it is the general effect that gives old paper its appearance of age. In many ways, it is to paper what corruption is to an old hard drive. But in some ways, foxing actually ends up being somewhat desirable as a way to make something “feel” old. As a graphic designer, I would often fake foxing effects on the backgrounds of pages I did because it sort of gave it a level of authenticity that you can’t really get from a purely digital object. You kind of just fake it.

It’s weird that, to make things look old and faded in the digital era, we basically have to Photoshop it, right?

Of course, while digital objects are naturally protected to some degree from this type of physical deterioration by the fact that the objects are stored as ones and zeros on a computer, it doesn’t necessarily mean that digital data is home free.

As I wrote a few years back, disc rot, the effect that oxidation can have on optical discs like compact discs and laserdiscs, is becoming a serious concern for many collectors of old media. And formats like hard drives and floppy drives do not exactly handle age all that well, with mechanical parts breaking down over time.

Even solid state drives, the gold standard by which much data is stored by average people nowadays, has a tendency to wear out over time, making it bad for long-term storage.

I guess one thing we have to look forward to is 5D optical storage, a recently announced form of glass-etched storage with data density 10,000 times that of your average Blu-ray disc. It can store up to 500 terabytes of data on a disc with the dimensions of a standard Blu-ray, which at Apple prices would probably cost about $100,000. Sure, it only records at 230 kilobytes per second, which isn’t even as fast as a 2X CD-ROM burner from the mid-’90s (and basically ensures a long siesta as you try to save all 500 terabytes to a disc you can’t even erase), but hey, if your goal is to have your data outlive you by many thousands of years, you need to get creative about how you manage the decay.

And there’s another way to think about this as well: Much of what is currently digital likely will not be able to get any better over time, as it will be limited by the maximum capabilities of what was available at the time. Photography produced on a digital camera from 1996 will only be as good as 1996 standards, while film from the same period can still benefit from innovations that have come since via analog-to-digital conversion. (Long story short: Our scanners are better now than they were 25 years ago.)

This same philosophy is why albums recorded in analog formats can be remastered repeatedly and it still brings out new touches to the music decades later. There are exceptions to this, as anyone who has played an upscaled Nintendo 64 game on an emulator can tell you, but information in many cases can only live up to the capabilities of the material that’s being used.

In the digital era, the risk is not things looking “old” so much as things disappearing entirely. UV light and foxing won’t be the problem, so much as servers that suddenly disappear from the face of the internet.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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