There are normal things that happen to hard drives and individual, sometimes unusual things that clients have managed to do over the three decades we've been recovering data for them.
The usual suspects:
Dust, fur, heat, electrical spikes, bumps, loose cables.
People's cats & dogs create a nice fur blanket that often overwhelms the cooling system for computers, laptops and external drives. See if you can put the computer in a less attractive spot.
Having a computer on a carpeted floor is another surefire way to drag heat-inducing fuzzdust into the box. Better to have it on a hard surface that is elevated a couple of inches off the floor, as heat is one of the main killers of hard drives.
Having an operating device in a sunny spot is another way to kill it with heat. Better to have it made in the shade.
Vacuums, power tools, and some kitchen appliances will often cause a device-disabling power spike. If the lights flicker, your computer and associated peripherals are suffering and in danger. Getting an uninterrupted power supply (not just a power strip) is a good cure for electrical spikes.
Computers and devices are often on side tables, subject to bumping or being knocked over, or on desks with drawers subject to being slammed. These kinds of impacts are unhealthy for hard drives. Besides the impact itself, poorly contained cables can wiggle and provide intermittent power or signal, or become disconnected. These are sudden, sometimes deadly events for hard drives. Make sure all your cables and connectors are secure, and have a stable base for that computer, away from foot traffic and other physical impacts.
The individual / unusual:
People do occasionally throw their laptops, external hard drives (and most certainly their iPhones) against the wall. We recommend against this particular form of emotional outlet.
We have recovered data from laptops and external devices that have had cat urine (a homeowner), people urine (an unpopular professor), a latte (a sleepy client), a martini (a too-awake client?), And any number of Glasses of water.
We once had a laptop that burned up in a school library fire to recover data from and ones that have been flooded, others that have had covered with fire retardant foam from putting out a house fire.
As the author writes this article, we're recovering data from a laptop that was run over by a truck.
Lots of flash drives have gone through the washer and dryer. My experience is that they give up the ghost in the machine after about three washings.
We've had flash drives that have been "accidentally" hammered, and ones that were inadvertently bent up from the side of a laptop and broken (I've personally had the transmitters for 2 Bluetooth mice broken that way.)
One sorry client's wife thought he had his little black book on his desktop PC. She took it out back to the children's sandbox, shoveled sand into it, and then had at it … with a sledgehammer! He said that the computer contained only a stamp collection database. Unfortunately, his stamps were canceled – this is one we did not manage to recover much useful data from.
Sports: when my kids were little, a Nerf ball against a hard disk was enough to knock it out. And then there are the occasions of the aforementioned use of laptops as basketballs with walls as the backboard …
Do remember that everything breaks, even when not subjected to extreme circumstances and that the only surefire means of protecting your data is a good (and regular) backup.
In the mean time, we hope you've enjoyed this sampling from the disk drive graveyards.
And if it comes to it, we hope you remember to use Burgess Consulting for your data recovery needs.