Archaeology on our own PCs – unravelling old file formats

A good few years – seventeen! – have passed since I left off working for a certain major corporation, stashed a bunch of documents and sometime projects in a directory on my PC, and went off to seek my fortune.  But this week the past came back to me, in the shape of reunion drinks; and I found myself looking for a document that I hadn’t seen in 20 years.

When I found it, I found that it was in a file produced by WordPerfect 4.2.  For DOS!  It was last edited sometime in the late 80s.  Fortunately at the time I had the habit of using “.wp4” etc as the file suffix, so I knew what the format was.  I found other files, suffixed as “.ws5” – WordStar 5!  There were some “.drw” files, which I knew were vector graphics files, and proved to belong to Lotus Freelance.  There were bunches of zipped up directories; but in “.lzh” directories, produced using the lha.exe archiver, which is now dead.

I know a crux when I see one.  Whether I can retrieve all of this now I do not know; but certainly the problem won’t get better if I leave it.  I once thought these files worth keeping.  But there’s not a lot of point, if I can’t open them.

Dealing with the WordPerfect 4.2 files was relatively straightforward.  Corel bought WordPerfect long ago, and a correspondent showed me that the conv50.exe file at the Corel FTP site, under the WordPerfectDOS 5.0 directory (which you can’t open in IE, but can in Google Chrome) was a self-extracting zip file which contained the convert.exe file used to convert 4.2 to 5.0.  So I got hold of this, and converted my file to Wordperfect 5.0.  Few utilities indeed will work with WordPerfect for DOS versions earlier than 5.0, although in fact 4.2 was a far more popular and widespread version.  You can run this quite happily in a Windows 7 (64-bit) command window, and it will prompt for input – I put *.wp4 – and output, and it will do all the files in the directory in one go.

Now I have a WordPerfect 5.0 file, there is a utility you can obtain, again from Corel, to convert wp5 files to an ancient version of Word.  This may be found in the WordPerfect for Windows 6.1 directory, and is named wp_convert_utility.exe.  This is an installer, actually, which installs a windows utility in the c:\program files (x86)\corel directory on your PC.  Don’t get creative with installing it, by the way – it plainly is on its last legs.  Here’s a screen grab:

WordPerfect Convert Utility
WordPerfect Convert Utility

 You can’t actually browse to files anymore – that doesn’t work!  You must type the names in yourself, and choose the right output type.  You want Word 97, which is actually the next item.  This will give you a nice .doc file.  I was then able to double-click on the file and open it in Microsoft Word 2010; whereupon I promptly saved it in some new, shiny, file format.  In the same directory, naturally.

The Wordstar files were simpler to deal with.  Long ago Microsoft produced an import filter for all versions of Wordstar 3.0-7.0.  They don’t include it any more; but it is out there, on a Microsoft FTP site.  The site is incredibly slow, tho.  The file, wdsupcnv.exe, is a self-extracting zip file, which creates a bunch of .cnv files and a readme.  You then copy these into C:\Program Files\Common Files\Microsoft Shared\Textconv.  Once you have done this, you open the .ws5 (or whatever you called them; if you called them .doc, as was the default, then I don’t know if this confuses Word) by double-clicking and choosing Word 2010 as your application.  It opens, prompts you to confirm the file format, then asks you to say “Yes” to something, and …. your file opens.  I then saved it as a modern Word .docx file – again next to the original.

I haven’t yet managed to open the .drw files.  But I gather that Lotus SmartSuite 9.8 Millennium should be able to open it, and save the results in Microsoft PowerPoint format; and copies are available cheaply on eBay, so I have ordered one.  Whether this will work on 64-bit Windows I do not know.

The worst problem that I got was with the collection of .lzh files.  The lha site is gone, and although 7Zip will open these files (although not on the command-line version), that doesn’t help you if you have a couple of hundred.  If you have an old copy of the lha.exe file, you will find that it doesn’t run on Windows 7 (64 bit), because lha.exe is a 16-bit applicatio1n, and Microsoft thoughtfully ensured that any compatibility layer was only present on the rare 32-bit version of Windows 7.   However I was able to find a clone LHA for Windows, and this worked fine.  I copied the new lha.exe into my directory of files, and adapted a little batch script that I found online to scan for all the .lzh files in a directory, and unpack them to a new subdirectory of the same name:

@echo off 
setlocal enableDelayedExpansion 

set MYDIR=.
for /F %%x in ('dir /B/D %MYDIR%\*.lzh') do (
  rem set FILENAME=%MYDIR%\%%x
  set FILENAME=%%x
  echo Processing !FILENAME! to !FILENAME!.DIR\
  cd !FILENAME!.DIR\  
  D:\MYFILES\lha x ..\!FILENAME! 
  cd ..

And it worked: FRED.LZH was unpacked to a new directory FRED.LZH.DIR, and so on.

It’s been an afternoon of archaeology.  I think that I have now converted all the files (except the .drw) that I have on disk.  I hope that these will go with me into the future.  Unless we are careful, even the past that we have saved carefully and archived will vanish.


8 thoughts on “Archaeology on our own PCs – unravelling old file formats

  1. Vernor Vinge predicted programmer-archaeology within possible futures where powerful AI and aliens cannot exist. The notion is that as centuries progress, and human languages change, old code will become so complex that to debug it all will require specialists in legacy code.

    This is mentioned in “A Deepness in the Sky” but more so in “Fire Upon the Deep”.

  2. I’m able to open old WordPerfect files directly in Office 2010 without having to run them through any converter first.

  3. I remember having old sermon outlines from a Leading Edge PC in a proprietary word processor that came with the machine. The software refused to work on Windows Vista, so /I just deleted them. Thankfully, they were not important.

  4. Useful – thanks. I can understand that Word would probably import that out of the box.

    Worth knowing, tho – if one could convert a WPDos file to WPWin6, that would also work.

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