The Steel Fortress

by wjw on June 11, 2021

A few weeks ago I wrote about my post-COVID lassitude and the difficulty I was experiencing in shoving myself out the door and into the world even after the vaccines had made it safe to do so.

Well, the lassitude is over. Two dinner parties last weekend, three the weekend before. Lots of hanging out. Lots of martial arts. I’m planning trips. Lots of trying to get things accomplished, and usually failing because I can’t seem to get other people to do their work.

I’m as bouncy as I ever get. (Admittedly I am not the most bouncy person I know.) But I’m frustrated because I’m not accomplishing as much as I really want or need to.

Take this afternoon, when I was trying to salvage the hard drive from an old desktop tower that had died a lingering death maybe ten years ago. The hard drive has a lot of my work on it that is probably not available anywhere else (my backups have disappeared), so my plan was to extract the drive from the old Gateway, then mount it in a hard drive enclosure and use it as a slave drive wired by USB to a functioning computer.

Well, how hard could it be?

Turns out that Gateway had hidden the hard drive in a steel fortress. I had to take off the cabinet, which I expected, and then tear everything movable out of the interior just to get a look at it. And then there was no obvious way to free the drive from its prison.

After a lot of peering and swearing and turning the machine to various angles and using a flashlight to get an idea of the interior, I found a bolt that might be holding the hard drive in place. The problem was that the motherboard was in the way, so I couldn’t unscrew it.

Well, I wouldn’t be needing that motherboard, would I? A few minutes’ work with a set of pliers snapped off the part of the motherboard that was in the way, and I was able to unscrew the bolt. The hard drive seemed freer than it was, but it still wasn’t going anywhere.

More peering and turning the frame in different ways, and I found two more bolts that seemed to be holding the hard drive in place. The problem was that they were both behind a steel mesh screen.

Gateway had seemingly decided that there would never be any reason for anyone to remove their hard drive, ever.

I managed to unscrew one of the bolts by sticking a small screwdriver through the mesh at an angle that wasn’t so acute that it couldn’t be used as a screwdriver. I managed with a good deal of swearing and sweat to unscrew the bolt, and I heard the satisfying sound of the bolt dropping down into the metal interior of the computer.

The other bolt wasn’t accessible at all, so I got my biggest screwdriver and biggest pair of pliers and set to work on a mission of destruction. Let me just say that I hope the drive is as durable as that steel screen.

Eventually I managed to get a bit of access, and I turned the bolt maybe twice before the slots in the bolt head stripped and the screwdriver couldn’t get any more purchase. After that I tried maybe every tool in my arsenal, but I couldn’t seem to manage to get the bolt to turn. Out of despair I turned to an Allen wrench.

Not to insert into the head of the bolt, because that wouldn’t work. But the ninety-degree turn in the Allen wrench meant I could get it up against the hex nut atop the bolt, and then just sort of massage the hex nut in the right direction. After several minutes of this the bolt finally fell away.

The hard drive was free! It only took an entire afternoon.

I then got out my only remaining Windows machine and connected my hard drive enclosure (which currently has another hard drive in it), and I found that it’s not working.

Also, I remembered that when I mount the hard drive I have to set it to slave, and there doesn’t seem to be any obvious way to do that. No visible switch.

But those are problems for another long afternoon. Let it not be said that I was defeated by a 17-year-old piece of hardware. It’s far more obsolete than I am, and I will bend it to my steely will.

Though at various points this afternoon, I wished I had my lassitude back

Scott Mari June 11, 2021 at 11:02 am

Excellent work. I would have been Googling and watching YouTube how-to videos hours ago.

Mister Dalliard June 11, 2021 at 5:36 pm

On a drive that old master/slave selection is probably done via jumpers rather than an obvious switch. You move a connector to the right pair of pins for the setting. Exactly which pins do what varies by manufacturer and model but that should be searchable.

wjw June 12, 2021 at 1:17 am

Thank you, M. Dalliard. Though there don’t seem to be jumpers, either.

Scott, believe me I was searching and watching YouTube videos, but the computer was so old the information was no longer available, assuming it was ever online in the first place.

grs1961 June 12, 2021 at 7:21 am

Post a picture of the label, and of the pin-outs. Some of use are old enough that we remember various incantations for disks of antiquity.

John Wilson June 12, 2021 at 5:01 pm

I look forward to a future novel with the title of The Steel Fortress, where at the critical juncture the hero has to use a screwdriver, an allen wrench and pair of pliers to infiltrate the bad guys’ stronghold.

wjw June 12, 2021 at 8:10 pm

Further investigation shows some very tiny print on the label that says “Master/slave jumper not required for SATA.”

No idea.

grs1961 June 12, 2021 at 11:27 pm

SATA means it uses the small connectors, not the big wide ones, and doesn’t need any jumpers to be set. (Which is what I thought it would be, IDE died a long time ago.)

Go to your nearest (or online) computer bits shop, get an “external 3.5 inch SATA to USB case” (maybe USD20, I don’t know), plonk the drive into that, and plug that into a USB port.

All will be copacetic.

James R Strickland June 17, 2021 at 11:03 pm

Linux can mount (read only) NTFS as well as FAT32, so it should work with your Linux machine. You have Linux machines, right? No? With the aforementioned USB-SATA adapter, you can mount either one on a mac too, albeit read-only for ntfs once again.

If you get it to mount, suck its entire brains out and sort through the files later on modern, reliable media.


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