#atozchallenge: Input

Back in the olden days, when I was taking my computer classes and when I started working in Data Processing, input to certain programs was punched on 80-column cards similar to the one shown above. In fact, our programs were punched on cards like this one, too. If you typed "C" instead of "X" or "*" instead of "8", you had to eject that card, throw it out and start all over again with an unpunched card. You could spend the better part of a day trying to keypunch a 2000-line program, with someone standing behind you wondering if they could just punch one card.

Eventually, the 80-column card was replaced by something called key-to-disk, where a keypunch operator would type 80-column images onto a disk file, then that file was either copied to tape or sent directly in to the appropriate process on the computer. We had terminals on which we could type our programs and compile them so they could would execute. It was a whole lot better than the 80-column cards. Trust me on this.

Remember when your phone bill came with a similar card, which you then had to send back with your check for payment? After a while, they figured out how to print the appropriate information on the bill, and the keypunch operator would create the card from there.

Baha’i Temple, Evanston, Illinois

When I was finishing my last quarter at Northwestern, I was working on a very large program, one that I kept in two boxes, each of which could hold 5000 cards. One night very close to the deadline (I think it was the next day at 4:00), I figured out what was wrong with the program, and decided to go to the data center, make a few changes, and the program would do exactly what it was mean to do, and I’d meet that 4:00 deadline with time to spare. So at around 8 PM, I put the boxes and the most recent listing on the back of my bicycle (because I didn’t drive) and rode from Northfield, Illinois (I was a commuter) to Evanston, on a route that took me down Sheridan Road past the magnificent Baha’i Temple (see above) and to the Technological Institute, where the data center was, and fix my program and run it.

It was a typical blustery night in late May, and as I passed the Baha’i Temple (which is a glorious sight at 8:30, when the thing is lighted up), I hit a bump. Both boxes and the listing slipped off the back of the bicycle. The listing furled like a flag, while one of the boxes opened, allowing some of my 80-column cards to be caught up in the wind and fly, some into Lake Michigan, some no doubt to heaven. And all I could do was stand there and watch it happen.

I got a B in the class (I was working on a C), mostly because the professor found the story hilarious.

Now that I think of it, I probably should have ridden to the L station and taken the train down…

32 thoughts on “#atozchallenge: Input

  1. Nightmarish Hollerith cards. All those hours on a keypunch machine in college, then having to wait for your program to be run and if you had any of those cards in the wrong order, or with a typo…not fun memories. I took Fortran and COBOL in college, back in the 1970’s. Alana ramblinwitham


  2. I remember those cards. Freshman year I fell in love with a computer geek (only they didn’t call them geeks back then) and ended up spending a lot of time in the computer room, watching everything that went on there in complete befuddlement. Didn’t understand any of it then, don’t understand any of it now. Thank goodness today’s computers are usable by ignoramuses like me.


  3. I well remember those cards. Somewhere in my files I’ve seen one of those punch cards that I think was from school or something. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it but I can recall running across it in a folder somewhere.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out


  4. Did not like punch cards, do not miss them, BUT what a story! They were their own kind of evil, I refuse to believe that any of yours went to heaven.


  5. I can just picture this like a scene for a comedy. HaHa! Time made this funny I hope but at the time, I can’t even imagine. Riding to meet the deadline when all that hard work goes flying up to heaven. Me with my idiosyncrasies for deadlines. I would’ve lost it. Oy vey!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was actually pretty funny when it happened, because at the time I was lying on the sidewalk (I had fallen when I hit the bump) watching all these cards flying off like birds. It took several minutes to realize the enormity of the situation, after which I could only say one thing: “Ah, s***!” At that point, I didn’t care anymoer.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, COBOL. It was the programming language of choice for many business applications and the course was through the school of business administration. I never tried FORTRAN or any of the others.


        1. I took the very first offering of COBOL offered through the Loyola School of Business in my last semester there. It might have been offered thru the Math Department, who was doing all the computer courses at the time. They all learned PL/I as their initial language in the business school, which made little sense because no one in business used PL/i, despite IBM’s assertion that it was going to be the all-purpose language for business and research work. I’ll bet I could go into IBM’s office here and not find anyone that knows anything about PL/I. It was almost identical to Algol, so I picked it up on my own trying to help a guy with his programs…

          Liked by 1 person

  6. I am laughing, John. I can picture those cards flying everywhere. I remember those cards very well, John. My undergraduate research lived in two boxes that I would carry back and forth to the remote computer center. Amazing that I could run that program on my phone today.


      1. Remember duplicating a card out to about 30-40 chr because that’s where you made the mistake?

        In my first job at Burroughs, I was reading cards in and creating card-image files to edit. Cursor control, up down, back, backspace & delete. I was in heaven.


        1. I never quite got the hang of that, nor setting up a drum card.

          Funny thing, my first job was as a programmer in a Burroughs shop, and they tried recruiting me. Don’t know why I turned it down…

          Liked by 1 person

  7. I remember the punch cards from the 80’s, some of my relatives were in computers. Thank heavens things are different now.


  8. After reading this, I just realized how crazy simplified our lives have become now. How quickly we can re-write our errors without any hassle.


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