Whatever happened to …

… the Hollerith Code? (and by inheritance, the punched computer card)

Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FortranCardPROJ039.agr.jpg – Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic

It was the CSTA Conference last summer in San Diego.

I was sitting next to Alfred Thompson and he was showing off various things about his newest computer, including facial recognition to log in.  Then, he showed me a project that he was working on.  It was one where he was showing off the Hollerith Code.

Wow, that brought back memories!

When I got my first teaching job, I looked through the materials left to me.  One of the questions on the exam was to “give the Hollerith Code for the following characters”.  Seriously?

For those that remember, the Hollerith Code was invented by Herman Hollerith and was a scheme for punching holes into a computer card so that you could provide instructions or data to a computer for execution.  If you look carefully at the card above, you’ll see the digits 0-9 and then above a couple of rows.  The digits were easy.  You just punched the digit you wanted.  Letters were a different game.  They were created by a combination of a punch in the top rows or a zero followed by a digit.  The combination resulted in a representation of the letter.  If you look closely, you’ll see that a Z is formed by a 0 and a 9.  For a greater discussion and more information that you’d ever care to know about this, check out this link.

Essentially, your program was a sequence of cards – one per instruction punched according to the rules of the language.  In the example above, branded a Fortran card, columns 1-5 were for statement numbers, 6 was a continuation column if your statement required two cards, 7-72 for the actual instruction and then 73-80 to identify the card if you were so inclined.  My personal theory was that the original CRT displays showed 80 characters inspired by the punch card.  I have no idea whether that is true or not.  So, call that an alternative fact, if you wish.

I still can’t get over students having to memorize the punches and characters though.

So, a good question would be – how do the holes get into the cards?  Through a keypunch, of course.  My first keypunch machine was an IBM 026.  In high school, we had one and time to get on it was based on a sign up basis.  That was never enough time so there were times that lunches and out of school hours were spent in the computer room.  When I got to university, it was comforting to see that the 026 was there as well in addition to the more modern looking model 029.  No idea if there was an 027 or 028.

It was an expensive time to be a programmer and certainly not good for the environment.  You had to buy the cards although $JOB and $ENTRY cards were free (and in different colours).  If you made a mistake, the card was no good.  You couldn’t go back and fill in the incorrect hole.  Being the cheap person that I am, I attribute programming in COBOL (a very verbose language) to my mastering of keyboarding.

It also led to one of my favourite jokes that kept my students rolling in the aisles.

What’s the most expensive computer statement?

Anyway, I thought it was funny.

There were bad things about punched cards.  You had to devise some way to carry them, keeping them dry.  At university, after exams, it wasn’t unusual to see thousands of these things discarded on the grounds outside the Math and Computer Science building as the end of a course was celebrated by tossing them from the lounge.  The building itself looked like one giant punched card.

As noted above, my first teaching job involved using punched cards.  We had two keypunch machines for student use and they could buy their cards through the school store.  Now, every teacher recognizes there are opportunities for student fun/abuse here.  The little chads were collected in an easily removable bucket under the keyboard.  If you weren’t carefully about cleaning these regularly, they passed for confetti in the hallways.  Another form of fun/abuse was to reorder your elbow partner’s deck of cards when they weren’t looking.  Or go nuclear and just knock the whole set off the table.

Survival techniques are in order here!  We talked about numbering the cards (on the back where the reader couldn’t get to them) so that they could easily be put back in order.  1 2 3 4 5 worked well until you needed to insert a card resulting in 2b 2c.  I recall one student who planned for the worst and numbered them 5 10 15 20 25.  Other techniques like writing a diagonal with a marking pen on the tops could help keep them in order.

Another concern for the classroom teacher was being able to teach the concepts to be done in as few (read as affordable) statements as possible.

As a teacher, you haven’t lived until you enjoy the noise of a keypunch going on while you’re trying to remain on point.  The worse noise was the DUP key which allowed for easily duplication of a card.

The Hollerith Code led to other ways to thinking about encoding characters so, while the description above now reads archaic, there are modern lessons to be learned here.  But, memorizing them?

This Computer Science teacher embraced the day when punched cards in the classroom just became a fond memory.  However, coding characters remains a constant today.

Speaking of memories, if Alfred happens to read this post, I hope he updates us on his Hollerith Code program.

Your turn.

  • Have you ever used a keypunch?  Do you have any similar memories?
  • It’s not as obsolete a concept as you might think.  Where do you see punched cards today?
  • Do the terms ASCII, BCD, EBCDIC, ANSI, or Unicode mean anything to you?  What did I miss?

Please share your thoughts via comment below.

Do you have an idea or thought that would be appropriate for my “Whatever happened to … ” series of blog posts.  They can all, by the way, be revisited here.

Please visit this Padlet and add your ideas.  I’d love for it to be an inspiration for a post!

Author: dougpete

The content of this blog is generated by whatever strikes my fancy at any given point. It might be computers, weather, political, or something else in nature. I experiment and comment a lot on things so don't take anything here too seriously; I might change my mind a day later but what you read is my thought and opinion at the time I wrote it! My personal website is at: http://www.dougpeterson.ca Follow me on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/dougpete I'm bookmarking things at: http://www.diigo.com/user/dougpete

8 thoughts on “Whatever happened to …”

  1. Good morning Doug!

    I am sorry to report that this is your first “Whatever Happened to…” post that I have read the title of and have had read on to find out WHAT THE HECK?? you were talking about.

    Borrowing from Agent 86, I will simply hold up my thumb and index finger with a tiny space between them as I say “Missed it by that much!”

    I will blame, or rather celebrate, my ignorance of said code on one of the teachers in the math department at my high school. He had the foresight to attend a summer course at Waterloo and came back to the school the following September with everything he needed to teach a Grade 11 course in Computer Math. It was either a Commodore PET or a SOL, but either way we saved our BASIC programs onto an attached audio cassette recorder.

    Oddly enough (believe it or not) we were lucky enough to have a 1:1 program, even back then in the late 70s. One computer per class. (Or rather, one computer per school.)

    At any rate, by the time I graduated from grade 13 two years later, I was eligible to take the advanced section of the first year Introduction to Programming course at UofT, having had that single computer math programming class in high school. The result? Our section was allowed to be guinea pigs for the Computer Science department’s trial of a 20 MB network storage for our class’ programming work. All of the other first year students that Fall were carrying around punch cards, but we were lucky. As guinea pigs, we survived, the network storage project was implemented for everyone, and my entire competing experience at University was punchcard free.

    Instead, I have great memories of waiting for an available terminal, doing my programming work, submitting the program to run, and then standing waiting in the queue to see the result at the giant printer that hammered on and on for hour after hour as it generated huge sheaves of fanfold paper: a printout your program output, and a printout of the program that you submitted. After that, I would edit my program by pencil at a nearby work table, and then join the queue again for the next available terminal to debug and run the revised program again. And then it was back to the queue at the noisy printer. Eventually, they built a box to put that noisy printer in.

    So, no Hollerith code for me. I heard all of the tales of students tripping in the stairwell and spilling their box of cards, or of evil classmates shuffling cards, but I never had the pleasure.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Those are great memories, Andy. I confess to having them as well – AFTER the experience with cards. You definitely just “missed it by that much”. However, forget the technology. The remembrances of Max Smart dates you by itself! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. One could use the last 8 characters on a FORTRAN card to number your cards as you said. The idea was that if you dropped the deck you could put the cards into a card sorter and it would put them back into order for you. We had a card sorter but most of us were two lazy to number our cards. I still have most of the punch cards I used in university BTW.

    I put the Hollerith card emulator program aside for the time being. I really do intend one day to make it part of a system that simulates in some way the process we used in those olden days. But I get distracted. 🙂

    FWIW the first gift I ever gave my wife was a stack of punch cards. She had to buy punch cards at her university and all the decks looked the same. The small private university I went to just put out cards for us to use. We had cards with different colored trim. One day I found a large stack of pink trimmed cards. I took a small stack of them and mailed them to her as a gift. A week from now we’ll have been married for 40 years so I guess that worked. 🙂


  4. I guess you’re forever the romantic, Alfred! I’m actually sorry that you put the emulator away. I was looking forward to seeing it in action.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Having just read Alfred’s comment, I’m wondering to which of the following Alfred would attribute towards maintaining the attention of his future wife;
    – that he liked computers;
    – that he sent her punchcards;
    – that he sent her punchcards with pink borders?

    Alfred, congrats on the 40 year anniversary! If it’s in about a week, would that put it smack dab on Valentine’s Day?


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  7. Hi Doug.

    Do I remember Hollerith cards. Being a bit older than you, things were a bit different in the computer lab at the UofW when I was a student.
    – We ran our own cards through the reader. No need to wait for an operator.
    – After waiting for the cards to be processed, we cursed when they returned with an error
    – Hollerith cards were free at that time.
    – Many of us collected boxes of blank cards to use for study notes. Shame on us.
    – I kept all of my boxes of cards in my basement until the great flood of 1977.

    BTW The Hollerith card was the same size as the US one dollar bill until the dollar bill changed later in the twentieth century.



  8. Now there’s a great bit of trivia, Ron. Thanks. I didn’t know that!

    But, I do see the similarity between a card reader and a money counter!


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