SIGCIS 2011 Workshop: Paper Panel 2: Insider and Outsider Communities in the History of Computing

Name: Allan Olley

Institutional Affiliation: University of Toronto

Email Address:

Paper Type: Full Paper

Paper Title: Punched Card Table Libraries as a Communal Resource

Paper Abstract: In the 1930s a loose community of punched card users began to form in academia. The community was supported by main manufacturer IBM and was forged by direct communication between participants as well as a small number of specialized publications. One connection between these users that grew directly out of the technology was the offer copies of tables in punched card form. Punched cards lent themselves to this form of distribution because of the ease with which they could be copied. The Thomas J. Watson Astronomical Computing Bureau at Columbia University was an early repository for such tables. Despite initial enthusiasm for the tables the overall utility of such tables remained an open question among researchers. Yet the practice of offering copies of such card tables for duplication extended into the 1950s and some punched card tables remained in circulation into the 1960s.

The growing number of tables over time give some sense of the increased level of interest in punched card computation over time. The attempt to create these networks to share information also illustrates the broader ambitions of early efforts. This particular practice depended on the capability of punched cards to be mechanically and perfectly copied, their digital nature and illustrates the important distinction between punched cards and other pre-computer technologies. My sources for this paper include academic journals, period books on punched card and conference proceedings. I will also draw on my doctoral research on Wallace J. Eckert including documents in his papers from the Charles Babbage Institute archives and documents from the IBM archives. The paper builds on earlier descriptions of the practices of punched card computation by other historians. It also suggests parallels between punched card technologies and the later copying and distribution of program code by computer users and culture of sharing that has been the topic of some discussion.