The Dirt Nap

You probably read about it in the news. Some filmmakers were making a documentary on the history of Atari, and they became intrigued by an urban legend of lost video games. To solve the mystery, they brought in heavy equipment and dug into a concrete-covered grave.

Thirty years ago, Atari dominated the home video-game market. Its E.T. video game was going to be another blockbuster. But the game was absolutely terrible, repeatedly dropping you into virtually inescapable pits, and it instantly became unsellable inventory. According to legend, Atari anxiously buried truckloads of E.T. cartridges in a landfill near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Hmmm, I remember the E.T. game like it was yesterday. Now, it is officially archeological. Man, it sucks to be old.

There is ample precedent for this kind of product interment. I collect Edison cylinder players (I’m listening to a stack of 4-minute cylinders as I type this), and there’s a legend floating around. After a long and successful run, the market for cylinder phonographs and records was rapidly being decimated by disc phonograph and records. In October 1929, Edison ceased production of cylinder phonographs. According to legend, the factory in West Orange, New Jersey, loaded up all of the unsold players and stacked them like cord wood in a nearby landfill. To my knowledge, the legend has never been proved or disproved. Collectors like me dream of uncovering that treasure trove.

Legends aside, it’s certainly true that our consumer products have a finite life span. They are awesome when we unbox them, they often hold a place of honor in our homes, but the day inevitably comes when their plug is pulled, and the formerly valuable item is carted off to the recycling center. Our gear joins piles of other TVs, receivers, loudspeakers, DVD players—if not exactly meeting their makers, at least sleeping soundly.

There are millions of AV products buried in landfills. In a few hundred years or so, I can imagine hardy adventurers digging into landfills looking for those archeological finds. As they tunnel down into the layers, they would go back in time. They would hit a layer of smartphones, then feature phones, then enter the golden age of AV. Imagine all the flat-screen, then cathode-ray TVs; surround and then stereo receivers; DVD players, then CD players, then turntables. I can imagine a collector specializing in 1970s boomboxes. Or maybe someone who collects only Phase Linear amplifiers. Imagine the rush if you found something truly rare like a DCC player.

Devices with batteries might be roached as the various chemicals eat into the electronics. But other devices might be in relatively good shape—maybe replace dried-out capacitors in the power supplies and clean the potentiometers. Integrated circuits should last forever. Uncracked vacuum tubes, certainly cause for celebration when unearthed, should be able to glow again.

Magnetic media such as open-reel and cassette tapes will be deteriorated. Optical media such as CDs and MiniDiscs should still be reasonably OK (CD-Rs, maybe not). Vinyl records, if protected by their cardboard sleeves, and perhaps by being in stacks, should be playable. Anything on flash drives will be perfectly preserved. Treasure to trash, to treasure.

Tasked with digging a 400-square-foot hole in a 300-acre landfill, the Atari filmmakers eventually unearthed what they were looking for. The legend was true. As film director Zak Penn put it, “There’s a whole heck of a lot of games down there.” E.T. had come home.

Meanwhile, while we’re waiting for our Trinitrons to become collectible, I’m thinking that 1929 wasn’t so long ago. I bet I could track down some company records and maybe even some eye witnesses at the landfill. There could be hundreds of factory fresh Edison cylinder players, carefully oiled, patiently resting inside their mahogany cases, just waiting for daylight. I’ve got the cylinders right here, ready to play. I also have a shovel. And I am willing to dig.

jnemesh's picture

They were also able to scout out a nice spot to dump all of those unsold Xbox One consoles! :)

James.Seeds's picture

What's the name of the documentary?