Very Long-Term Backup

Posted on Wednesday, August 20th, 02008 by Kevin Kelly
link Categories: Rosetta   chat 0 Comments

Paper, it turns out, is a very reliable backup medium for information.  While it can burn or dissolve in water, good acid-free versions of paper are otherwise stable over the long term, cheap to warehouse, and oblivious to technological change because its pages are “eye-scanable.”  No special devices needed. Well-made, well-cared for paper can last 1,000 years easily, and probably reach 2,000 without much extra trouble.

Prototype Rosetta disc from 02008

We can not say the same for digital storage. Pages stored on plastic DVDs are neither stable over the very long term, nor readable over the long term. Unless digital information is ceaselessly migrated from one fading medium to another new one, it will quickly cease to be accessible. Two decades ago the floppy disk was ubiquitous. Most personal digital information then was stored on this format. Today, any information stored only on a floppy disk is essentially gone.  Imagine the incompatibility of today’s DVD in 1,000 years.

As durable as paper is, its inherent limitations in storing digital data are clear. Pity the person who would need to find something if the only backup of the web was a paper printout that filled several airline hangers.  What we need are media that have the durability of paper and the accessibility of a floppy disk (or better!).

This problem of long-term digital storage seemed a crucial hurdle for any civilization trying to act generationaly. How could a society think in terms of centuries unless there was a reliable way to transmit and store its knowledge over centuries? This puzzle was the focus of a conference hosted by Long Now in 01998, dedicated to technical solutions for Managing Digital Continuity. At this meeting Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive suggested a new technology developed by Los Alamos labs, and commercialized by the Norsam company, as a solution for long term digital storage. Norsam promised to micro-etch 350,000 pages of information onto a 3-inch nickel disk with an estimated lifespan of 2,000 -10,000 years. 

Might it be possible to etch an entire library onto a set of disks? It might be worth trying. All we needed was a finite data set that a society might want to have backed up.

During a Long Now field trip to a southwest archeological site, the idea of a modern Rosetta Stone came up — a backup of human languages that future generations might cherish. At a winter retreat in 01999, Long Now board member Doug Carlston suggested that for the parallel common text of this modern Rosetta Stone we should use the book of Genesis, since it was most likely already translated into all languages already. We hatched a plan to produce a 3-inch non-corroding disk which contained at least 1,000 translations of Genesis and other linguistic information about each language.

Following the archiving principle of LOCKS (Lots of Copies Keep ’em Safe) we would replicate the disk promiscuously and distribute them around the world with built in magnifiers. This project in long term thinking would do two things: it would showcase this new long-term storage technology, and it would give the world a minimal backup of human languages. We thought it might take a year to do.


Long story short, it took eight years. Last night at a ceremony at the Long Now museum in Fort Mason, one of five prototype disks Rosetta disk was presented to the Oliver Wilke Foundation, a Frankfurt-based linguistic center, who help support the project.  The disk is 3 inches in diameter, and mounted beneath a glass hemisphere.


One side of the disk contains a graphic teaser. The design shows headlines in the eight major languages of the world today spiraling inward in ever-decreasing size till it becomes so small you have trouble reading it, yet the text goes on getting smaller. The sentences announce: “Languages of the World: This is an archive of over 1,500 human languages assembled in the year 02008 C.E. Magnify 1,000 times to find over 13,000 pages of language documentation.”

This graphic side of the disk is pure titanium. A black oxide coating has been added to the surface. The text is etched into that, revealing the whiter titanium. This bold sign board is needed because the pages of genesis which are etched on the mirror-like opposite side of the disk are nearly invisible.

This business side of the disk is pure nickel. Picking it up you would not be aware there were 13,500 pages of linguistic gold hiding on it.  The nickel is deposited on an etched silicon disk. In effect the Rosetta disk is a nickel cast of a micro-etch silicon mold. When the disk is held at the right angle the grid array of the pages form a slight diffraction rainbow. You need a 750-power optical microscope to read the pages.


The Rosetta disk is not digital. The pages are analog “human-readable” scans of scripts, text, and diagrams. Among the 13,500 scanned pages are 1,500 different language versions of Genesis 1-3, a universal list of the words common for each language, pronunciation guides and so on. Some of the key indexing meta-data for each language section (such as the standard linguistic code number for that language) are displayed in a machine-readable font (OCRb) so that a smart microscope could guide you through this analog trove.

Our hope is that at least one of the eight headline languages can be recovered in 1,000 years. But even without reading, a person might guess there are small things to see in this disk.

All this took eight years because back in 02000 the Norsam technology could not handle the size of our library, and there was in fact, contrary to our assumptions, no library of already completed Genesis translations. There was no central depository of language information, either. So in order to gather 1,000 translations of Genesis and related linguistic information for those 1,000 language, Long Now created the Rosetta Project.

Heading the project was artist/linguist Jim Mason, who ran Rosetta at first like it was an art project. Which it kinda was. Working under the radar of the academic linguistic community, Mason began collating and scanning all known versions of Genesis, and later regional and ethnic creation stories in native languages. He collected maverick linguists and bridged the feudal factions in the academic linguistic community. Under Mason the project quickly morphed from art project into a major linguist initiative. Mason steadily won the support of the world-wide professionals as the Rosetta website grew into the “All Language Archive.” Eight years down the road, after major NSF grants and other funding the Rosetta Project now has a unified (such as it exists) set of information in 2,300 languages. At several points in its evolution, the Rosetta’s tiny non-profit offices were crammed with dozens of grad students scanning pages of wonderfully obscure languages as fast as paper could move. Over 100 people contributed work in the office and thousands more on the website. The intention all along has been to cram this all language archive onto a few disks. Or a tiny cube. Or maybe, art project at the core, etched onto a long wall.

This is a Long Now project, which means it is okay if it takes a while. It took 8 years to gather the scanned Genesis texts. During that time Norsam perfected their production. Now we have a disk.

But it was not the very first disk. That one is in space. In 02004 the Rosetta Space Probe was launched by the European Space Agency. This small craft was created to land on a comet in 02014. Before it blasted off, the ESA contacted us because we share names. They asked if we’d like to mount a version of the disk on their probe. Of course we would! We had manufactured a pure nickel disc with a subset of 6,000 pages of language translations, which was mounted on the payload section of the probe.


Rosetta Space Probe

So assuming the mission continues well, in 02014 the Rosetta Probe will land on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, where it will measure the comet’s molecular composition. Then it will remain at rest as the comet orbits the sun for hundreds of millions of years. So somewhere in the solar system, where it is safe but hard to reach, a backup sample of human languages is stored, in case we need one.

Or you can have one on earth, if you want, acting as an additional node in the distributed archive. There are still two disks available from this prototype run. Currently, for all its high techness, each disk is hand crafted, and so they have a corresponding high hand-crafted cost: $25,000. Contact the office if you are interested in caretaking an archive of all languages. Long Now hopes to produce additional copies in the future, so that these small globes will be scattered across the world in nondescript locations; that way at least one will survive their 2,000-year lifespan.

There’s a small hidden cavity inside the globe where owners can inscribe their name, with room and encouragement to have the next owners inscribe theirs. This is a multi-generational device. As Oliver Wilke said when he picked up his glass sphere last night, “This is one of the most fascinating objects on earth. If we found one of these things 2,000 years ago, with all the languages of the time, it would be among our most priceless artifacts. I feel a high responsibility for preserving it for future generations.”


Standing in front of sample pages from the Rosetta disk, Oliver Wilke holds his new sphere and Laura Welcher, Rosetta Director, holds the nickel disk.

  • Rick

    I’ve been watching this project from the beginning. When do you estimate the disks will be commonly available at a pricepoint affordable to the masses?

  • Kevin Kihn

    This is fascinating. Obviously it’s conceivable entire libraries could be permanently archived using this technology. I’d like to see something similar done with respect to creating permanent archives recording visual artistic treasures of the world in a highly compact and durable form. For instance, I gather research is currently being done to create holographic information storage in artificially generated crystal latticeworks, which presumably are quite permanent. I’ve come across abstracts concerning this subject online. Such might constitute a remarkable artistic medium. I hope to learn more concerning this and Norsam’s technology in future.

  • Very cool post. I like the idea of human readable text. Rosetta stone format is superb, the original Rosetta stone had only a few languages, yet it really opened some archeological doors. I would suggest including an ASCI or Unicode version of whatever is human readable.

    My daughter is a bible translator in Tanzania. When I first learned more about her work I was amazed to find that there are probably 6900 or so languages in the world (current use). The Wycliffe Family of Partner Organizations have a vision of having translation work in progress for every language in the world by 2025. There are about 2200 language that don’t have a work started yet. I don’t have anything against Genesis, but it has been translated into far fewer languages than has the New Testament. In particular, projects often start with one of the Gospels. Here is a link with more info: . The Seed Company is just one of dozens of Wycliffe partners. There is a great deal of work already in progress to insure that existing translations and new ones are collected and stored “safely”.

  • It’s about time! The apocalypse is near. By the way, the pyramids are the same idea, under each stone is an information file. They were build by the Atlantians, ;later the Egyptians got the idea to put bodies in them.

    I think pyramids are better idea to store knowledge, and they have been proven as effective.

    What you need to do is cast your device in a 1.35 ton concrete block and build another pyramid with the blocks. You can be assured 4000 years survival, maybe even 15,000 according to the documentary on youtube “age of the sphinx”, and according to my belief 200,000 years.

    And please try to preserve something more important that this gobbledygook called “genesis”. I am Arab, and my ancestors fabricated this story and it’s not even good. And if you believe in such tall tales as “genesis” you can’t deny what I am telling you. Atlantians are more plausible than some bearded god flying over a body of water before creating the earth.

  • Chris Simms

    I haven’t really kept an eye on the project, but I’m a bit curious. How will future cultures be able to read the stone? And I’m not talking about incompatibilities between evolved languages. I’m talking about it being printed in ridiculously small print. For how long has humanity had microscopes strong enough to read the disk? Not very long. And it’s plausible that we won’t in the future.

    I thought you guys were about long term thinking?

  • Hi, i have to admit that i share Chris Simms doubts, if this project is meant to archive “human culture” on a media that would be possible to read independently of the technology available than the fact that you need a quite advanced microscope to read is going to be an issue. Assuming that in the next generation humanity progress then they would probably have no big problem with that. But a humanity recovering from a planetary level catastrophe would be in trouble finding the necessary tech to read that, don’t you think?

    And, beside that, the genesis?
    The linguistic value of having a common text already translated in many different languages is without doubt.
    But imagine in a far away future someone finding the stone and managing to interpret it, what a bunch of weirdos they will think we were? adam, eve, the tree of truth and all that stuff? i really would hate if all we left behind was the genesis.


    p.s. are the comments moderated? then the system should give the user some kind of feedback, otherwise you can’t tell if things worked!

  • To read all the content on this particular disk you would need a 17th century microscope. We also have even more content on redundant spinning storage accessible on the net, as well as optical backups (DVD). Indeed someone would have to re-invent pretty good optics to read this disk. However the disk could also be reproduced as a massive art piece 50 feet across in stone and be human eye readable. Or more importantly we are releasing all the disk content on DVD so that others can find ways of saving it.

    Regarding Genesis… yes we get this a lot. We had a ton of debate about it. It came down to a totally mechanical reason, the bible is the most translated text and it starts with Genesis. Finding John 3:16 in languages you dont know or scripts you dont recognize while scanning documents from a shoebox out of a closet in Papua New Ginea is really hard it turns out. Here is the question I always ask, “Without looking it up, can you tell me what was on the original Rosetta Stone?” It was a bunch of boring tax stuff, but we dont judge those cultures by that material. We are smart enough to know that this was just one piece of text that randomly survived and we are thankful to have it.

    And yes unfortunately due to spam these comments are moderated.

  • PioneerPlaque

    I thought the information on the Egyptian Rosetta Stone was about
    the coronation of some obscure pharoah?

    Either way, it worked!

    We need to have more such disks on all sort of information made and
    scattered everywhere, especially beyond Earth.

  • Rocks! Rocks are the obviouse awnser to long term media storage. They last a very long time. In some cases longer than the language! Start carving!
    You could probably teach a computer to laser burn the data into thin slabs of stone!

  • Modern techonolgy: Its amazing how far we have progressed from the cave man days!

  • NiQue Safani

    Rocks have always been that answer, how can we modernize this method? This makes me feel like the civilizations before us could have been so much more advanced than we think. I mean think about it… 5000 years from now nothing might be left but those old carvings in stone that have been here for so long already… and look at how advanced (we think) we are. 5000 years from now we might forget how to magnify to 1000 times, we will never forget how to see and interpret drawings/pictures.

  • “we will never forget how to see and interpret drawings/pictures.” This is a common first intuition. Ironically drawings a pictures are the most difficult to interpret. This is exemplified in hieroglyphics, Mayan glyphs, and countless other pictographic writing systems that have taken decades of concerted effort to decode. The problem lies in the changing nature of what a pictograph represents to a culture. For instance someone from 01980 Berlin might make a pictograph of the Berlin Wall which would have represented all kinds of things to that person, but in 1000 years would be absolutely opaque to an archaeologist.

    You are right about carving in stone though. If we can find a donor and a location I would love to etch this whole disk in stone at a human eye readable size… It would be about 100ft across.

  • Troglobyte

    If only this technology was available at the time of the Library of Alexandria! Hopefully, some soldier would not have found the disk and worn it around his neck.

  • James Morton

    Would be cool if people with enough money could submit their own text and order a custom disk. In addition to languages, how about a disk with a concise timeline of history as we know it. Or one with the periodic table, math formulas, physics formulas, and other scientific goodies.

  • Anyone can use this technology. We were just a customer. Please do put together a timeline dataset and have it etched!

  • Yasmin Bowe-Woods

    Amazing work. Could this be used for archiving art? Will the special microscopes for reading be available to the masses.

  • You can do grayscale images with the technology and you can make CMYK or RGB plates to express color, but I would not suggest this as the best way to archive art. I think Ed Burtynski’s ideas on art archiving are far superior. You can listen or watch his lecture and see the write up here:

  • Orionas Boundy

    I think it’s a marvelous idea!! we should have one made for different subjects and then lock them up somewhere in a time capsule for people to open in 500 years. It could include all the information that we know about history, physics, mathematics, biology, chemistry, language (check), All Novels ever written (???), engineering, modern technology, music and millions of other things. Mabye we could make one in every language we possiblly can, and then put copies of them in the countries were the langage is spoken. Perhaps we could even make a 10 foot (3 meter) disk with all of this information. Wouldn’t it be great? all the knowledge man posses about the world today permanantly etched onto a 3 meter disk? We definatly can do it. Perhaps one day theese disks will replace books completly and they will be used as census or Encyclopædias. I would just love to see all the knowledge of man reduced into a big disk, so we can look back at it and imagine it grow. I would truly feel a sense of pride. please, can you try and do it???? All you need is to get a sponsor like Bill Gates or someone, who would be more than glad to do something like that.

  • Kyote Ael

    100 ft across? that would look cool on the floor of a library, museum or university, being genesis a religious organisation might sponsor it as well.

  • anonymousrecording

    why not use this method to create a self contained handcrank device that preserves an oral recording of languages as well as visual writing? records are simple enough and listening to a record without a recordplayer is easy…just use a needle and a cone shaped piece of paper

  • Jeff Wright

    Have any of these been put on space probes?

  • _Felix

    …and they were all mistaken for paperweights, forever and ever.

  • Bill

    I’d estimate the storage capacity at 26-50 MB, let’s hope none of all the disks still to be written never to be lost

  • Dani

    You can support the project with replicas of the Rosetta Disc, but not of nickel at 17.000 $, it can be made with a cheap material, all readable, and a lot of people would to have a Rosetta Disc on their living rooms, like the reproduction of Rosetta Stone you can find in some houses. 
    I want a Rosseta Disc replica!! 

  • sehrgut

    That was so far from coherent and reasonable, I’m not even sure if you’re trolling or not.

  • sehrgut

    Because a nontrivially-complex mechanical device that would function over the timespan Long Now cares about is nearly impossible.

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