Do you know what this is?


Last month at Tam’s place people were commenting things we had which were old. It was sort of “back when I was a young’n…” story telling time.


I visited my parents last Saturday and picked up my contribution to the discussion:



I brought it in to work today and asked my office mate if she knew what it was.


Her eyes got big and she said, “Oh my! Is this a punched card? I have never seen one of these before!”


I told her that it was more than that. “This”, I told her, “Is proof I was writing software before you were born.”


I took Engr 131 fall semester 1973 at the University of Idaho. Punched cards is a tough way to program a computer. There is no back space or delete and retype. There is no “white out”. If you make a mistake on a card you get to type a new one (there were rare exceptions but that is beyond the scope of this discussion).


We would leave our card deck on a table in the hall and come back three DAYS later to read the print-out result of the submission to the IBM 360. Usually it was something like ten pages of paper that boiled down to something like “Syntax error on card five, column 17.” Or “Program error. Core dump follows.”


The next year using a line editor on a teletype that looked like an IBM Selectric typewriter with a box of paper in back was such a thrill. You could get the compile and run results in a minute or two instead of days. And “editing” was just AWESOME compared to punching cards.


In the early 80’s I started programming on a CRT. It was still a line editor but listing lines 120-140 only took a couple of silent seconds instead of 30 seconds of clattering with the teletype. I started hearing rumors of something called a “visual editor” about the time son James was born in ’84. I couldn’t imagine what the fuss was about. “Visual editor?” What is that about? How much better than Edline could an editor be? I didn’t bother to check it out for several months.


Even then I would tell people about programming the microprocessor system I had build on a plug-board. I had typed in hand assembled hex codes into a PROM programmer. Then I plugging the PROM into a socket and powered up the system trying to debug it from the deciphering the way the LEDs blinked. Now that was a tough way to program.

16 thoughts on “Do you know what this is?

  1. my dad earned is m.sci. in computer science in 1966. he used to say that the serial number of the computer was 5, and i don’t think he was joking.

  2. Boy do Hollerith cards bring back bad memories. We used to keep our AF munitions inventory on them back in the 70’s. Punch card machine out in the bomb dump, computer at base supply and 3 miles in between. I tipped over a deck of about 5000 cards (fell off the car seat) then when I opened the car door to put everything back in the box the “gentle ocean breezes” in Great Falls Mt. took over and sent cards ALL over the place. Good Times.

  3. Ah yes; “stone knives and bear skins”.

    My mother worked as a programmer for Medical Service Corp. back in the ’70s. They had an IBM 360 and later upgraded to an IBM 370 IIRC. The 360 had something like 4K of memory– a hand assembled “core”. They hired a room full of “keypunch operators” and a librarian– he was the guy who served as the “OS”, hand delivering card decks to and from the library and running them through the card reader. You loaded one large deck for the program (the term “application” not having been invented) and another deck for the data to be processed. In this case it was usually customer billings or some such.

    When things went wrong, she’d come home with massive stacks of pin-feed paper so she could go through it and debug a core dump.

    When they upgraded to magnetic tape it was a huge deal. A single tape drive was about the size of a person and the reels were about 10″ to 12″ in diameter. They had a room full of these drives at one point. When she brought home a new fangled “hard drive” disk that had been “crashed” (an so destroyed) we kids were amazed. One disk cartridge had several dinner plate sized glass disks coated with metal oxide. The whole cartridge held a whopping 4MB to 12MB IIRC. Awesome capacity.

    This is how liberty works– all that development happened without politicians getting in the way and imposing “international computing standards” or some such retarded horse shit. You can now get computers for free out of a dumpster that are a million times more powerful than the gigantic and expensive old 360 and were thrown away because they’re too skimpy. A room full of the large tape drives can now fit on your thumb drive for under twenty dollars.

    As late as the mid ’80s at least, we were still getting our utility bills on punch cards. “Do Not Fold, Staple or Mutilate” became part of the American vernacular.

    For that matter, the Appolo missions were completed using slide rules. The Appolo 11 Lunar Lander had something like a 4KB memory computer on it, which crashed during the last critical seconds of the landing. N. Armstrong took over full manual to put ‘er down. That long pause (edited out of some of the presentations) between “Tranquility base…” and “the Eagle has landed” was him taking time to wipe his ass.

  4. Ah yes! That does bring back memories. Did a summer camp at Mansfield University when I was in 9th Grade and took a computing course (what kind of dork does that for a summer vacation?) Learned to program WATFIV (Waterloo FORTRAN version 4) on an IBM 1130…and, yes, it was a pain in the ass but I loved it. Language deck, program deck, output deck in the hopper…wait. Good times!

  5. Oh thanks a Hell of a lot. I feel like I have just been folded, spindled and mutilated.

  6. Ok, trivia question… Possibly an unfair one as Big JH mentions, only the anointed few were actually allowed to load the cards into the machine.

    “What was the loading instructions on the IBM card reader?” (hint, very simple five word phrase)

  7. Don’t forget wiring up the jumper boards to run the programs that were on the punch cards, heh.

  8. One of my first jobs in college was in the computer center at WWSC, around 69-71. Only two computers in B’ham at the time, one at the college and one at GP. I got to be the pimpliefaced kid you turned your batch of cards in to. Made a little extra money keypunching for other students. Every so often, one of the white-coated priests would come out of the computer room and take back the programs to the inner sanctum that commoners weren’t allowed to see. Only two sins up there; one was dropping a stack of cards, the other was writing code with an endless loop in it.

  9. Danno, from ancient and vague memory, “Insert Nine-Edge Face Down.”

    At least on some. Others wanted 12-edge, and one thankfully rare one (I don’t think it was IBM, though) wanted 0-edge. And then there were those little square[ish] 120-column cards that came out shortly before various punch-card replacements became economically viable and widespread.

    The first computer I worked with was an IBM 1401 with 12k (yes, K, not M or G) user memory (fairly large as most were 4-8k, but not the 16k max) in 1964. It had tape drives (which were badly shielded, we used to be amused by putting a portable radio on top and tuning into the beeps) and disk drives were being added.

    Late in the days when punch cards were still the usual input, I was both amused and horrified with the set-up at one place I visited. They had standard-looking keypunches (062?) that wrote to magnetic tape instead of cards (and yes, a back-space feature had been added), which sounded like a good idea. Until I realised there was no reader on the computer – the tapes were mounted on another keypunch machine and cards were punched from the tapes! Gah!

  10. emdfl, I have been trying to forget those for decades! Having six or more different-colored pencils to make the diagram with some hope of being able to find a way through the maze! I had to learn the basics of wiring a 407 (at least not a 402) in school but never for an actual job – although the second place I worked in the early Seventies still had a 407, all the boards had permanently-attached covers so the wires could not be moved.

  11. Heh.. I still have a stack somewhere for my class in PASCAL which was RJE to the main campus.

    When I bought my first Kurzweil K-1000 it amused me (still does) that with the top left corner lopped off at 45 degrees it was remenicent of a Hollerith card.

    Mice? How about card sorters?

    Hard drives that fit in your pocket? How about 5 MB standing on the floor and as big as an appartment clothes washer?

    I still have my original s-100 computer with twin 8″ floppies (241KB storage each!!) and the Hazeltine 1500 terminal to “talk” to it. GUI? Wazzat?

  12. Man, the 360 was the first machine I got to use as an explorer scout in 1970 at IBM here in HSV. We learned Fortran and were allowed to write short programs. I also remember several high school football games where I had bags of punch card ‘confetti’ that got tossed around. Man was that stuff hard to get out of anything.

    Hard to believe all that happened ~40 years ago. Thanks, fond memories indeed.

  13. teqjack –

    You have the right idea. The loading instructions on the hopper was “Face down, nine-edge first”

    (Thanks for playing the game)
    Danno

  14. Ah yes. Some not so fond memories. I may even have some teletype rolls around that we used to store code on.

  15. I used punch cards for a FORTRAN class I took in 1978. I think we were using some type of line editor a few years later when I took a Pascal based introductory CSci class. I may also have some paper punched tape machine tool programs in one of my old machinist toolboxes.

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