Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Face down. nine edge first

On this day in 1887, Herman Hollerith was awarded a patent for his punched card calculator. He designed his machine to automate the processing of the census records, and the company that he founded went on to become IBM.

The card shown is identical to the ones that I used when I first started learning to program, back in 1975. Each card, we were taught, should have a single line of fortran code. Each card, we were taught, should have an instruction number - so that if we dropped the card deck, we could reassemble our program in the correct order.

There weren't ever enough card punch machines. The card punch would chop a hole in a location on the card, so that the card reader could determine what character was encoded. If you made a typing mistake, you had to throw away the card and type another, unless you were good with masking tape and an exacto knife (I wasn't, and had to stand in line).

The card decks were loaded into the reader face down, nine edge first. The nine edge was the long side, shown on the bottom of the picture. Now that you know it, I can tell you an obsolete technology joke:
When Herman Hollerith died in 1929, he was buried face down, nine edge first.
And now that I told you that, I can tell you another obsolete computer joke, about card punch machines. When you pressed a key on the keyboard, the punch chopped a small piece out of the card. The piece, called chaff, fell down into a glorified wastebasket called a Chaff Box. High-end card punch machines had sensors for the Chaff Box, so the Operators would know to come and empty it.

A man I knew was once the Uber Support guy in the Computer Center - the guy that everyone went to with the unsolvable or unknowable problems. The guru on the mountaintop, so to speak. With a evil sense of humor.

One day a junior Operator came to him, with a puzzled expression. He's received a strange OPSCOM console message, Chaff Box Full. What did this mean? I should point out that this was after most card punch machines had been replaced by electronic terminals - but a few had been kept to support older card deck programs.

Ralph explained the message, and the junior Operator left to empty the chaff. Ralph forged a OPSCOM message: Chaff Box Empty. Junior came back, even more confused, and then dismayed to find out that "You need to leave an inch or so of chaff at the bottom of the box!"

I never learned if Ralph ever got the Operator to bring him a left handed smoke shifter.

UPDATE 8 June 2010 22:00: ASM826 remembers some tech pranks from Back in the Day.


Anonymous said...

I needed the smile this morning.


BobG said...

I still have a stack of those cards from 1969; they make good bookmarks.

wolfwalker said...

Hollerith joke - funny.

"Chaff box" joke - not so much. In fact, not at all. I'd have brought the stupid box back and dumped it out on the bastard's desk. Or perhaps all over his lunch.

Borepatch said...

Wolfwalker, it sticks out in my mind, maybe because I was one of those newbie engineers when I heard it.

Burt said...

Best way to protect yourself against a dropped card stack was to draw a diagonal line with a felt-tip marker across the top of the edges of all the cards in the stack.

If you dropped the stack, all ya had to do to put the stack back in order was to put the line back.

ASM826 said...

Great obsolete prank. I have a couple more, but I think they make a post of their own.

roy in nipomo said...

I can remember when in college in about 1973, the wait for a card punch machine was only about 30 minutes - if you were there at 0200 hrs, that is. It then got busy toward the end of the term.

Wally said...

I still have a few teletypes (and one machine relying on paper tape). I am going to scrap the teletypes soon, but will certainly be saving one of their side mounted bit buckets !

Firstmate said...

WRONG! Chaff was used to confuse radar by the allies in WW II. It consisted of pieces of aluminium foil whose length was chosen to resonate with the frequency of the German radar. It was discharged during bombing raids.

Chad is the bits of card or paper punched out (completely or partially) from paper or card media.

This term (chad) became infamous during the disgraceful Florida presidential election scandal (Bush and bro.)[look it up]

We used to call the chad
collection box "the bit bucket" where all lost data went.