Re: Stupid Ideas

Rohit Khare (
Tue, 18 Aug 1998 18:36:49 -0700

I admit, my first impulse was to contradict Dave, since the "IBM Cards"
we all grew up with are considerably larger than any paper currency.
However, Dave is recalling *its* predecessor, the Hollerith card, dating
straight back to the original census contract that became the Computing-
Tabulating-Recording (CTR) corporation -- and later, after acquiring time
clocks and meat scales and cash registers, the International Business
Machines corporation.


The Hollerith Cards

Hollerith was prompted to use the Jacquard cards, while riding a
train: "I was traveling in the West and I had a ticket with what I
think was called a punch phonograph. . . the conductor . . . punched
out a description of the individual, as light hair, dark eyes, large
nose, etc. So you see, I only made a punch photograph of each person."

The Hollerith Cards, as they became to be known, could be prepared in
any order and stored in a logical manner. In addition they could be
replaced or corrected much more easily than the continuous
tape. Hollerith described the advantages of the new system:

"the individual records embrace a great variety of characteristics and
complication are to be made from time to time covering different
periods and embracing a wide range of statistical manner . . . the
continuous record-strip is not well adapted for the purpose, as it
does not afford the means for conveniently classifying and
reclassifying individual records.2"

While one of the benefits of this system was undoubtedly the ability
to sort cards in a meaningful way,4 storage of a large number of these
cards could prove difficult. To avoid this potential problem Hollerith
designed his cards with the same dimensions as dollar bills. Therefore
cabinets that were commonly made for the storage of U.S. currency
could be used for storage of the Hollerith Cards.


He also encountered quite a biometric authentication system. I wonder how
un-PC it would be to describe Amtrak passengers that way today...

By way of a glossary to Sterling and Gibson's steampunk novel, The
Difference Engine, I was lead to a more comprehensive historical essay
linking the loom to lovelace to chad (the stuff one punches OUT of a

Which informs us that the English noun censor is both one who counts as
well as one who redacts -- rooted in the Roman office of Public Censor
who got stuck with both responsibilties...

There's also a choice footnote from Hollerith's biographer on the dinner
at which the idea came to him -- while trying to seduce the Census analyst's

Ah, the lost joys of surfing randomly,..