In Search of the Internet:
The Early History of Punched-card Technology
from the Jacquard loom to IBM

The Lounge at Iwan Ries
Tuesday, February 2, 2016
  Reservations are required.

Where did the internet come from? One story goes this way:

In the beginning, electronic computers were thought of as giant calculators, created in Cold War labs to help guide artillery shells, build bombs, and detect incoming bombers. The Pentagon linked descendants of these machines into the ARPANET, the network that would become the internet. By the late 1980s the stage was set for Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web, but it was really with the opening of the Internet to commercial traffic, the appearance of the Mosaic browser in 1994, and the Netscape IPO in 1995 that networked computing exploded into the culture as a whole, setting the stage for our own world of ubiquitous internet access and algorithms, for tablets, smart phones, wearables, and the Internet of Things.  In a nutshell, that is the story of computing and the internet as it is often told.

But this version of the story makes it hard to understand how the giant defense calculators evolved into social machines—into devices we use to communicate and interact.  That part of computing history makes more sense when we start the story a little earlier.  In the textile mills of the Industrial Revolution, Jacquard looms used loops of punched cards to stored complex patterns for woven cloth.   Charles Babbage dreamed of using similar cards to program his never-built Analytical Engine, and his intellectual partner, Ada, Countess of Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, saw that the Engine could handle not just numbers, but symbols of any sort.

At the end of the 19th century the American-born son of a German immigrant, Herman Hollerith, implemented a system that used punched cards to handle data.   Working in tandem with John Shaw Billings, a physician and statistician (and the first director of the New York Public Library), Hollerith’s punched cards and tabulators helped process the 1890 US census in record time. Then he turned to other kinds of data, for railroads, insurance and the retail trade.  One of the first large-scale retail installations, at Marshall Field and Company, was churning through 10,000 cards a day by 1907. The company Hollerith founded would become IBM; punched cards would become the mainstay of information storage and processing until the digital electronic computer displaced them.

Hollerith’s expansion into different markets was based on the idea that information technology could be used to represent, recombine and manipulate many kinds of objects in the world.   The modern computer is much more than a calculator because it participates in and helps us build our culture.  It can do this because of the representational flexibility that traces back to the punched card.  When we watch Herman Hollerith stretch the limits of the technology he invented, we see our own world in the making.

In the textile mills of the Industrial Revolution, Jacquard looms used loops of punched cards to stored complex patterns for woven cloth.  By the end of the 19th century, punched card technology was being used to process census, health, and business data.  The leading company in punched card technology, IBM, would play a key role in history of electronic computing.   This presentation describes how the punched card evolved and how it contributed to the information revolution as we know it today.

David Halsted has a BA (St. John’s, Annapolis, 1983) and a PhD in comparative literature (University of Michigan, 1991). 

Dr. Halsted writes,

"I have a background as both an academic and a technologist.  I’ve taught college-level courses in literature and history and have been working on web pages and applications since the mid-1990s.  I recently left the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I was Director of Online and Blended Learning in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, to pursue freelance and start-up projects."

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ONE OF THE OLDEST AND greatest traditions of the city clubs of Chicago is the discussion of intellectual, social, legal, artistic, historical, scientific, musical, theatrical, and philosophical issues in the company of educated, bright, and appropriately provocative individuals, all under the beneficent influence of substantial amounts of tobacco and spirits.  The Cigar Society of Chicago embraces this tradition and extends it with its Informal Smokers, University Series lectures, and Cigar Society Dinners, in which cigars, and from time to time pipes and cigarettes, appear as an important component of our version of the classical symposium.  To be included in the Cigar Society's mailing list, write to the secretary at curtis.tuckey@logicophilosophicus.org