How paper punch cards enabled the rise of computing and shaped humanity.


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Of The Ascension of Information: Books, Snippets, Genes, Machines and the Endless Algorithm of Life by Caleb Scharf published on June 15, 2021 by Riverhead, a brand of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 Caleb Scharf.

In 1889, a mechanical engineer by the name of Herman Hollerith persuaded the United States government to use machine-readable paper punch cards and electric counting machines to conduct the national census, saving the United States Treasury approximately $ 5 million dollars in data processing costs for 62 million people. By 1891, Hollerith was designing machines for use in censuses in Canada, Norway, and Austria, as well as by railways to compile rate information. As a result, Hollerith’s fledgling company quickly became part of the growing data landscape, and eventually, in 1924, it became the International Business Machines Corporation, or IBM.

The basic technological idea exploited by Hollerith originated in the early 1700s with holes punched in paper tape that could govern the movement of the yarn in automated looms. This mechanical hack meant that intricate patterns could be reproduced quickly and efficiently in all kinds of textiles. And during the 1800s, perforated paper developed beyond looms to become a more general technique for storing and manipulating information.

By 1937, IBM was producing an astonishing 10 million blank punch cards per day. In the first half of the 20e century, these simple paper cards, designed to accommodate an accurate grid of perforations (literally rectangular holes) in 80 columns in 12 rows, have been used in a wide variety of business and government applications, from accounting records to personnel records. . Their tiny voids of paper were data manifested in the physical world.

For a while, punch cards have been a dominant force in humanity dataome. This is what I have come to call the mass of data that humanity creates and carries, other than our genes, everything from Shakespeare’s plays to memories in the neurons of your brain. This is one of the most peculiar and perhaps unique characteristics of humans: We carry large amounts of information outside of our biological forms. These data not only reflect the actions of humanity, but also motivate them. And for a while the 20e dataome century was drowning in punch cards.

During World War II, cryptographers working at Bletchley Park in England routinely used around 2 million punch cards per week to store their decryption of Nazi communications. But that wasn’t the peak: it happened in 1967, when the United States alone consumed around 200 billion cards per year. At that time, punch cards were also the common medium for programming and interrogating fully digital computers.

Extremely critical tasks such as basic programming for NASA’s Project Apollo guidance computer, the design of which was overseen by computer scientist Margaret Hamilton as director of software engineering at MIT’s instrumentation lab, were transposed onto IBM paper punch cards. This process was an entirely standard routine for software development. A programmer would write the code by hand on special coding sheets, preformatted forms. These coding sheets would then be converted into physical punch cards using a punch machine, essentially a typewriter connected to a motorized machine equipped to punch holes in cards. Often this procedure took place twice, where a second human operator would punch the cards again in a checking machine which compared this new set with the first to detect any errors. Finally, the cards would be routed to a card reading machine that would convert the holes into electrical signals, physically compiling the data in the electronic computer.

All of this meant that using a computer was a physical chore, from making the cards to carrying a stack of cards to the card reader and waiting for your turn to program the computer. In software parlance, this was a batch process with you as part of the batch. And as with all of our books and printed materials, punch cards were also a significant energy load. Taking into account the production of paper, transportation, machinery and human effort, it is likely that by the end of the 1960s, the equivalent of about 1 to 10% of the national energy budget for combustion of the coal in the United States was devoted to the production and use of punch cards.

What is fascinating is that punch cards, perhaps even more than ordinary printed matter, required very specific human behaviors. The whole process of writing, testing and using computer software has, for some time, been tied to the quirks of a format that has its origins in the way we mass produce pretty textiles. There was also a direct physical relationship to the data when stacks of cards were carried and deposited, organized and discarded. For a while in the 1960s, it must have seemed that our future really was that of a cog in a giant electromechanical organism. But by the mid-1980s, punch cards had all but disappeared. Even IBM no longer made them. Instead, the cards and the machines that used them were relegated to specific legacy needs. Magnetic tapes and disks and solid-state computer memory have become the norm. These new media were much more compact, faster and more reliable. Importantly, these storage techniques have also lent themselves to a much more natural approach to data. Imagine trying to record and digitize an orchestral performance with punch cards. Not only would that be spectacularly slow, but the machines would have to be highly personalized. In contrast, that music can be digitized almost seamlessly and thinly and saved to magnetic tape or silicon memory, with a much more accommodating set of speed and capacity limitations. The barrier between the dataome and the physical world, and us, has been magically lowered. Punch cards have allowed the digital world to flourish, but they have also been overtaken by it.

There is a striking similarity between the history of punch cards and the types of patterns we find in evolutionary biology and the ebb and flow of species. It is not necessarily something deep. Correlation and similarity do not imply an underlying fundamental connection. But seen through this lens, it is quite undeniable that these simple pieces of paper take on the character of an organism, in an essential symbiosis with man.

Punch cards were initially an emerging innovation in a niche environment (power looms and tabulating machines). But as their usefulness was exploited for more diverse purposes, they in turn influenced the environment. In biological terms, their phenotype has spread.

They imposed demands on energy and raw materials and sculpted the surrounding infrastructure. They have also returned to directly govern human behavior – an interpretation it makes sense to take literally. The punch card component of an evolving dataome has led humans to practice punching cards, transporting them to machines, painstakingly disentangling things when things get caught and stuck. Live, think and dream of punch cards.

Special printing presses had to be invented to produce these cards, and engineers worried about excruciating minutiae like the shape of the punches – circular versus more efficiently wrapped rectangles. The specific data passing through the maps at any given time, whether it was the U.S. census or an Apollo lunar trajectory, was almost irrelevant. In the dataome, the punch card was an evolutionary experiment, a new kind of biomechanical structure if you will. In the process, it changed the way we think about information and the things we can do with it. Punch cards helped bring human society out of the industrial age and the data age like an unruly herd.

Eventually, they were taken out of existence because they were too power hungry and too bulky. However, it can be argued that some of their “genes” survived this extinction. The way these maps structured the data included naming the years with two digits, to save space. This characteristic created the threat of a so-called “year 2000” catastrophe when the human calendar passed the year 2000. The nomenclature used by some computer languages ​​to format data also has its roots in the need to standardize the punches in their data. 80 columns. These traits have indeed outlived their material hosts and have taken some of the burden with them.

It is too easy to assume that today we are done with phenomena as temporary and demanding as punch cards. But of course, this is not necessarily the case. If I wrote this in 50 years, I might just roll my eyes at the cryptocurrency craze of the early century. Or the crazy naivety of smartphones and social networks and how they made us behave. There is no reason to assume that other new and differently weighty experiments will not continue to emerge from the dataome and supplant their predecessors.

Riverhead Books

Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.


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