A case of computer archaeology

My father-in-law had researched his family tree some 15 years ago using a software program to help manage the data. The program was called Reunion 4.0 and ran on an Apple Macintosh PowerBook 165c. Once the project was finished, the program was no longer used and the computer was eventually mothballed.

I first heard about this project a couple of years ago and that my father-in-law was interested in adding new information to the family tree. I realised immediately that there was no time to waste in retrieving the data from the old computer. The data had never been backed up and no one knew if the computer still worked nor if the data could still be transferred from it!


Fortunately, none of this turned out to be a problem. The sturdy little PowerBook ground into life and the Reunion program started. I took an old floppy disk and formatted it in the floppy disk drive. Then there was a choice of saving a copy of the genealogical data in native format or exporting it to the GEDCOM format. I did both since I had no idea if I could read the native file (most likely binary) format or if the text-based GEDCOM file contained all of the same information.

Getting it onto the PC took a while. I had no floppy disk drive. Off to the neighbours who had one and who then emailed back the files back to me. There were over one thousand people named in the family tree! Step one complete. Or so I thought. It would take another two attempts before I got the version of the data file with the most number of individuals in it transferred to the new computer.


Next, find a program to open the native Reunion file with. Leister who make Reunion no longer distributed the program for PC. However, they did offer a conversion service free-of-charge for which I am very grateful. I sent off the native files and a few hours later got a GEDCOM 5.5 file back with all of the information in it. Having the data in the GEDCOM format meant that I could in principle import the data into any other genealogy program. The first PC program I looked at was GenealogyJ which has lots of features but did not import all of the information in the GEDCOM file. In fact it silently ignored a lot of fields which made it totally unreliable for my purposes.

The file from Leister naturally enough used MAC OS character encoding, so before importing it into a PC program I need to convert it to DOS. UltraEdit makes this easy. The standard character encoding for GEDCOM files is ANSEL although most programs will handle DOS and/or UTF-8.


Next I found MinSläkt which did a very thorough job of importing the data and warned of all problems that occured during the import. There were lots of problems. Time to look at the GEDCOM standard. It seems that the GEDCOM file from Leister contained many deviations from the standard all of which I had to correct by hand. To this end UltraEdit and UltraCompare were invaluable tools for identifying and solving these issues. These were:

  • Removed all _UID fields
  • Fixed GEDCOM header: missing, superfluous or incomplete information
  • Fixed incorrect date formats
  • Moved addresses from FAM to INDI.
  • Replaced @C90@ with NOTE
  • Replaced all NSFX with TITL
  • Moved RELI to NOTE
  • Converted all ADDR in INDI to RESI
  • Fixed HEADER error
  • Converted SOUR to NOTES. This was a compromise since MinSläkt does not support citations that are not connected to events. On the other hand no sources had been named so no information was lost.

After that, the import ran without any errors or warnings and no information loss had occurred as far as I could tell. At each stage of the conversion I saved a copy of the file so that I could go back one steps or more if needed.

Now I had a program that I could use to manipulate the ancestry data with. But before continuing I tried testing the GEDCOM file for any errors that MinSläkt might have missed. A free GEDCOM validator found only one minor error in the updated GEDCOM file and the warnings could be safely ignored. For comparison I ran just the default checks on the GEDCOM file from Leister: 101 errors found!


Now I could start working with the tool. I tested different views, editing fields and adding individuals and families according to the new information that was available. I had never used genealogy software before but I quickly understood that maintaining references to the sources for information entered into the program was essential for resolving conflicts when they arise between different sources. Unfortunately MinSläkt only supports one citation per source per event, even though the GEDCOM standard allows multiple citations from multiple sources to be associated with any piece of information – not just events. A reply to an inquiry to the developers of the software did not bode well for any improvement to this functionality.

Surfing the net again I eventually found Family Tree Builder (FTB) which turned out to be a much more advanced program (and free!) and with a much more elegant interface. The program has online research functions and advanced photo handling capabilities as well as being easy to use. Before the import could succeed, a few minor corrections were needed, in line with the GEDCOM standard:

  • Changed PLAC to ADDR+ADDR1
  • Converted “NOTE Religion:” back to RELI

Finally, it felt like I was on the right track. The tool even had Swedish language support which was appreciated. After some more testing I was satisfied that this tool was reliable and user-friendly.

Final touches

Time to inspect the family tree. The following housekeeping tasks were identified:

  1. Fix typos
  2. Fix duplicates
  3. Run the control function to check for inconsistencies in the archive. Also identify unconnected individuals.
  4. Tidy up individuals
  5. Check for deceased individuals
  6. Add descendants

These tasks I left for another day. After that I backed up all of the migration files to USB memory as well as the current copy of the data from FTB. Now the family tree could once again be extended.

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