The lost art of punch card decoders

Мы любим всё - и жар холодных числ,
И дар божественных видений,
Нам внятно всё - и острый галльский смысл,
И сумрачный германский гений…
We love cold numbers’ hot illumination,
The gift of supernatural vision,
We like the Gallic wit’s mordant sensation
And dark Teutonic indecision.

Alexander Blok: The Scythians, 1918, translated by K. Dowson

We were working on children’s New Year matinee (a travel with a magic book of fairy tales) and, when rummaging through the old books, discovered a beautiful EC decoder from the 80s, colored with pastel pencils in a very similar style to our magic book, with the beautiful girlish characters.

I was able to find just one other example on the net, a lot less artistic and obviously boyish.

There must have been thousands of them made in the compu science schools across the Comecon and maybe in the West too, but - are they all lost to time?

To recall how this was supposed to work, I had to look up EBCDC punch coding rules (which actually perfectly match the more familiar ASCII over this group of characters)

The instructions turned out to be very simple, and I even made my own demo “punch card”, using a printer and a razor blade. The embedded slide show below should show all the gory details (but you may have to start the slide show over). As you thread the card through the sleeve, one column after another comes into view in the decoder’s narrow slit. The top three rows (0, 11, and 12) may have up to one hole, and you follow a band of color from there, to the level of an additional punch in rows 1 to 9 (For example, the very first column is punched in row 12 (aha, the blue band!) and in row 8 (it is "H"!) . Use the right-hand side of the decoder if there is only one hole in the rows 1 through 9. If there are two holes there, then one of them should be in row 8, where a little arrow on the decoder instructs you to switch to the left-hand side.

Some non-alphanumeric symbols made me gasp too. Like ¤ … yes, this thing is indeed used instead of a dollar sign, and it’s been invented by Italian telecommunication officials even before the dawn of the computer age, to serve as a “universal currency symbol” instead of the politically tainted $. In 1964, the Working Group on Alphabets of the CCITT (International Telegraph and Telephone Consultative Committee, a body of the International telecommunications Union) made ¤ an international standard character code, to a great delight of the dollar-hating Eastern Block members. It wasn’t even supposed to be a printable character at first, just a placeholder for different currency symbols of the member nations, but then the computers and the EC OC came along, and the non-entity got its own life. (Actually, Wikipedia claims that this Sun-disk with 4 rays already existed in Cretan Linear A and Linear B scripts, supposedly standing for the number 1000?)

And now, ¬, the logical negation symbol, mostly giving the people of my generation some vague memories of Assembly language, but still known to today’s youngsters because of the Theory of Knowledge course of the International Baccalaureate school curriculum.

The punch card itself is a ghost from the past, it’s century-plus history in warehouse orders, transportation fare-cards, and, finally, computer programming all but forgotten. The last we still remember may the inglorious tale of hanging, swinging, and pregnant chads from the 2000 presidential election fiasco in Florida (I remembered it quite vividly when my own razor-cut chads went swinging and hanging!)

But the art of deciphering the codes of the past lives on, and the poetic beauty of the numbers is eternal!

Александр Дольский.

Однажды 2/12 позвали 3/13:
– Пойдемте, 3/13, пройдемся вечерком.
– Ах, что Вы, 2/12, – смутились 3/13, –
Увидят 5/15, что Вы со мной вдвоём.

– Пусть видят 5/15, – сказали 2/12, –
Мне это, 3/13, поверьте, все равно.
Пусть знают 5/15, – сказали 2/12, –
Что я Вас, 3/13, люблю уже давно.

– И я Вас, 2/12, – сказали 3/13, –
Пройдемте, 2/12, подайте мне пальто.
Ну что нам 5/15, ну что нам 6/16,
Ну что нам 7/17 и даже если 100!
Aleksandr Dolsky

Once 2/12 asked 3/13.
Let’s go, 3/13, let’s take an evening walk.
Ah, 2/12, said the shy 3/13
5/15 may see the two us together

May 5/15 see, said 2/12.
Believe me, 3/13, it doesn’t make a difference for me.
May 5/15 know, said 2/12
That I love you, 3/13, for a long time already

And so do I, said 3/13
Let’s go, 2/12, please give me my jacket.
Why would we care about 5/15, why would we care about 6/16
Why would we care about 7/17, and even about 100!

1 comentario:

Araz dijo...

What a beautiful blast from the past!