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The Hollerith Card story...


Old King Log
Staff member
Somewhat tangental to music, but it's in there at the bottom so, after years of promises, here it is. I had it hidden in an old computer backup.
Backup Your Data - 1970s Style

A Cautionary Tale Of Love, Musical Magic,


Computer Programming Done The Old Fashioned Way


Terry L. Stibal​

Ah, Hollerith cards. Don't get me started about Hollerith cards. You young whippersnappers with yer magnetic tape, yer 'hard drives' and yer cathode ray tubes. In my day, you sat at a keypunch machine for five hours, punching and re-punching the cards that contained the programming until you got it right, or so you thought. Then it was down to the room with the counter where you stood until one of the operator geeks deigned to notice you and take your handiwork. Then it was only the matter of a couple of hours until somebody delivered a sixty page printout that would help you sort out your five one-letter syntax errors. And they wonder what took us so long to get color computers...

Gather around my children, wait for me to fill my (metaphoric) pipe (tap, tap, tap...flash...puff, puff, puff), and listen to a moving tale of computer madness, historic music and young love from a time long ago:

I once had a huge program (designed to sort out probable duplicate Veterans Administration claims following the great NPRC fire in 1973) that took up the better part of a box of the damn'd things. I'd work on it at work during the slack time during the day, compiling and testing as I went, then them one or two nights a week to Washington University in Saint Louis (where I had mainframe computer system privileges) to do the same during the middle of the night.

Being young and running flush with hormones, I was attempting to combine the rather bizarre cycles involved with compiling and debugging a pretty complicated computer program written in a weak programming language (RPG, to be specific) with an active second job as a musician and a social agenda that could best be described as a juggling act. (But, I hasten to add, it was a programming concept that won me a sizable cash award from a Federal agency notorious for being as tight as a drum.)

In any event, it was not something you attempt to do lightly, but I was young and restless, and the first stages of a glorious Saint Louis autumn were in the air. And, as might be expected, mistakes were made.

There I was, heading out to Six Flags Over Mid America for the laughingly named "afternoon" shift (which ran from five o'clock until closing) In the bed of my pickup truck (an unusual ride for anyone back in the early 'Seventies, despite what you see these days) were my five horns (I played the Reed IV book in the pit orchestra in the theater where they put on the musical shows, and I had to provide a wide variety of woodwind instruments as my tools of the trade), my late lunch (two sandwiches, two Hostess snacks, two pieces of fruit, and a Styrofoam cooler with four bottles of Coke, in the then-rare sixteen ounce size), and my big box of Hollerith cards.

Up in the cab with your correspondent was a young lady (one Barbie F.) who had just replaced one of the 'good' singers/dancers when the A list crowd had gone back to college. While not much in the talent department (although she had appeared on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour once, or so her mother told me), she had a number of attributes that interested me, most of which were displayed to good effect when she did the bob and twirl star turn routine to the strains of "It's Such A Pretty World Today", tricked out in a 1890s outfit that suited her youthful willowy figure just so.

For those who have never spent any time in a orchestra pit, it's hard to realize what it is like to look at well-displayed beauty, orbiting by just over your head, seven to eight times a day. You develop a sort of rhythm to it all, knowing just when to tilt your head up from the part and the conductor, memorizing a few bars of music and following the drums rather than the baton, just because you know that at that point in the number, she'll be making a star turn only inches away. With Barbie, I would actually lengthen the peg on the bottom of my bass clarinet a couple of inches before the number in question, just so I could continue to play the part in the best American Federation of Musicians traditions of excellence, yet get a good clear view of the stage without moving my head...

Oops...drifted off for a second there...now, where was I?

Anyway, she needed a ride to work, and I was needing her company, so it was only natural that we were soon paying a lot of attention to each other as we rolled to our respective musical destinies at 70 mph down the then-new Interstate Highway 44. And, I was happy that she chose to sit in the middle of the seat, close to the then svelte and muscular (and, dare I say it, "attractive to the opposite sex") T. Stibal, instead of over on the shotgun side - a portent of what was yet to come, if you will.

Later, it was said that the genesis of our budding romance could be tracked by the windrow of punch cards deposited by the side of the highway as we sped through the afternoon sun on that fine fall day. It seems that someone forgot that the open tray-like box was not quite the container to be carrying small, flat paper objects at seventy per. (On previous trips, it had always sat on the seat next to me, right where her oh-so-shapely bottom was nestled up against my then-muscular thigh.)

(Despite the wonderful beginning, ours was a brief affair. She had to start carpooling with someone else after her two weeks of bliss with the all powerful and knowing stud muffin that was I in the early 1970s. For all I know she is still feeling the pain. However, it lasted just long enough for me, what with the impending arrival of the just-as-affectionate Michelle.)

Of the huge numbers of cards containing the program and the data set, only about two hundred of the data cards remained. The rest had fluttered out of the tray over the length of the twenty mile highway run, flipping up into the eddies in the slipstream coming off the roof of the cab as I blasted by other cars and trucks, and dribbled along the side of the highway.

All the while, I was distracted from the intermittent flutter in the pickup bed behind me by flowing golden hair (undoubtedly fake) and the bluest eyes into which I've ever had the privilege of staring. Distracted by a living doll, I was oblivious to the departure of my massive corpus of computer work, card by card. And, I was littering in the bargain...

On subsequent trips out to the park, I would occasionally see the telltale shape of a Hollerith card off in the verge of the highway right of way. I even stopped and retrieved one as a remembrance of the event, framing it as a reminder of the hours of labor it took to recreate the programming from the last printout (which providently had remained on my desk at work). Sort of a Paleolithic equivalent of a backup of your hard drive, if you will. For all I know, that weathered card is still sitting there framed on my old desk at the now-DVA, close to the massive ball of used staples that I removed over my tenure there.

Like Charles Foster Kane's assistant Bernstein, I can say with certitude that there's scarcely a day (well, a month maybe) that goes by that I don't think of that girl, even though I only knew her for what amounted to a moment of my life.

All I have to do is to hear the first few bars of that song, and suddenly, I can see her twirling through her big moment on stage, spinning parasol over the right shoulder, hem of the white shirtwaist lifting just so to showcase her gorgeous gams, all this as she worked her way towards an imagined theatrical career that no doubt led to a secretary's job in New York City, 'secondwifedom' with some silver fox of an ad executive on Madison Avenue, and a life in the Connecticut suburbs. And then, I start remembering Hollerith cards...

Oh well, ships that pass in the night and all that...and certainly a cautionary tale about the hazards of not "backing things up". I wonder if she has ever figured out why I got so upset over what were (in her words at the time) "just a bunch of cards"?
This is a wonderful piece of nostalgia. In the mid-60's I also cut my teeth on Hollerith cards and RPG when I worked for Big Blue in London. I managed to refrain from littering when I lost my cards, I just left them on the underground (subway to our colonial cousins). They're probably still trundling round in the Circle Line somewhere.


Old King Log
Staff member
I've still got the last printout from the last run of the program. It was an irritant for some in the "administrative" portion of the office, as they were required to submit a separate BIRLS (what that stands for, I never can remember) request for each new claim not accompanied by proof of service, but the huge number of duplicates that it prevented saved the agency piles of money.

The success of that suggestion (submitted when I was a lowly GS-7), plus the supporting documentation in combination with my pro-se patent got me further in the US government than I ever imagined I would climb.

The programming I can understand, since there was a lot of larnin' and specialized labor involved in putting it together. The patent I cannot. There is a wonderful book titled Patent It Yourself that is a "do-it-yourself" guide to each and every step in the process, and the schema that the author offers is easy to follow, and one might say foolproof.

It involves different skills than does programming, and the patent search process (an absolute necessity to see if someone else has covered the same ground before you) is - um - "tedious". However, we (my lovely wife and I) did our search in the Saint Louis Public Library (one of many patent depositories scattered about the nation) and it was a great way to spend some time together while we were separated by circumstances (ongoing divorce action on my part).

In the old days, you had to physically look through roll after roll of microfilm, scanning previous patents to see if they had anticipated your design features. You gave the clerk a set of the specification of your creation (what it was made of, what features that it had, and so forth), she plugged it into a computer, and you got a massive printout of every patent that could potentially have anticipated your invention, and then you went to work.

The great thing about the search process was that you got to sample American life stretching back to the early 1800s. During the random reeling through and stopping, I ran into patents filed by people like J.E.B. Stuart and John D. Rockefeller, just during random pauses. When search the design patents, almost every stop during a reel would land you on a design that you would recognize from American commerce during your lifetime.

Once you've completed your search, you submit your final patent (mine involved the very difficult task of describing a helical coil of two sided fabric hook and loop fastener wrapped around the cone shape of a clarinet mouthpiece - try doing that some time without a picture or using your hands) along with your carefully produced technical drawings to the folks in Crystal City, and sat back and waited. I got to know my examiner pretty well (Ben Buller, now retired), and he worked with me to refine the claims (the vital part of the patent) until they were just so.

I've got a second patent pending (again done through the less-expensive pro-se process), this one filed as a sort of joke to see if it would issue (since it's unlikely to amount to anything, but you never know). It's a clever device for the master bedroom in any home, and it deals with a very real and present problem (but not one that most are willing to discuss). I'm through the examining process, and waiting on the issue date. If it ever goes commercial, I'll start bragging on it then, but until that happens, mum's the word.
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