Is This the First Computer?

According to historians, this loom is the first programmable computer. No, I’m not joking. The Jacquard Loom, invented in 1801, used punched cards to control the loom.

There was one punch card per pick and each line corresponded to a row of the design. Multiple punch cards could be lined up for multiple picks. This allowed the Jacquard loom to be much more flexible than contemporary looms that were essentially single-purpose tools and had to be manually reconfigured to produce different textiles.

The idea of using punch cards pioneered in the Jacquard loom influenced the early developers of computers. Many older programmers have fond — and not-so-fond — memories of punch cards. They allowed you to fairly easily program a computer and store that program in a reusable format.

A FORTRAN punch card. Oh, FORTRAN, you cruel beast.

Yours truly just missed using punch cards. I was still required to take FORTRAN, and our professor had boxes of punch cards in his office. By the early ’90s, even the most archaic of computing systems was using digital media for data storage and programming. I’m sure some of our readers used punch cards. My only question is, “Did you ever drop the box?”

  • Baron Von Danger

    I threw up in my mouth a little

  • OA5599

    Put all your punch cards in a box. Looking down from the top, use a black marker to draw a line from the top left corner to the bottom right, so that each card is marked someplace along the top edge. If the cards do get shuffled, the line helps you to figure out approximately where in the stack the card belongs.

    I don't recall ever dropping any, but I do recall the long waits for keypunch machines. There were long lines probably 16 or 18 hours per weekday, and even in the middle of the night there was a fair degree of activity.

  • OA5599

    When you finished punching everything, you would take your deck to the admin for processing. Output was queued by complexity. If you had an error in your program – perhaps an infinite loop or undefined variable – you would get a printout almost immediately alerting you to the problem so you could make appropriate adjustments. The business students typically had 50 to 100 lines of COBOL and a page or two of output, so their jobs would print next. My courses were in PASCAL or FORTRAN77 and typically had 300 to 700 lines and eight or a dozen pages of output, which frequently took as long as 40 minutes to come out of the printer. It was rare to get perfect results the first time around, so you would have to fix typos or make other minor corrections (there was a particular keypunch machine reserved for people who only had to fix a couple of cards) then resubmit your deck and start the waiting all over again.

  • P161911

    I do remember an old charge card in my parent's desk that used punches to store the data instead of a mag stripe. I believe it was for Rich's.

  • Kids these days have it so damn easy! Rabble rabble rabble!

    • To be fair, I wonder if computers didn't come about too early for their own good, punchcards seem like an evolutionary step the computer really never needed to make. Would things have worked out so badly if we had just waited for the dawn of magnetic media? And why am I being so serious at half past eleven at night?

      • tonyola

        World War II, the Cold War, and the perceived need for number crunching pushed the computer issue. Remember that ENIAC was created to calculate artillery trajectories and was first used for calculations for the H-bomb.

        • Even before that people were working on mechanical computers that used punch cards for programming and data storage. The 1890 US Census data was stored on punch cards used in a system created by Herman Hollerith, thus their nickname the Hollerith cards. When computers eventually did make the leap from mechanical to electronic, the means of easily writing and storing data and programs was not quite there yet. You had circuits that could electronically compute things, but data storage was still in its infancy. By that time, though, the punch cards were both mature and "the norm".

          • Good lord, I had no idea things went that far back. Colossus managed to by-pass punchcards during the war, using instead a paper-tape reader, a direct precursor to magnetic tape. I had wrongly assumed that the digital path was pretty much pat after then. I can see I'm going to have to learn at a much greater rate than I might elsewhere! Thanks, guys.

  • Charles_Barrett

    I recall keypunch machines off to one side in the printer room at Caltech, but they were around for older, legacy stuff. We students had access to rooms full of dumb terminals, most monochrome text-only raster units, but there were a handful of Tektronix vector graphics terminals as well for those doing specialty work. We also could use printing terminals (each had a case of green-bar tractor feed paper at the ready).

    Although I missed out on Hollerith cards (except for use on a Monroe desktop programmable calculator, but those were pre-punched), I did use the paper tape readers mounted on a KSR33 Teletype on a few occasions when I was still in prep school. Those teletypes were connected to a PDP-8e 12-bit minicomputer. I only used the paper tape experimentally to store some programs, but I had user space on the hard disk at my disposal and that was much easier to deal with.

  • dwegmull

    I used a punched paper tape to run a CNC in college. We had a room full of PCs with simulation software. There was an electronic interface between the CNC and the PCs, however it was built as part of some students' lab project. Needless to say, it never quite worked! As a result, we would run our simulation on the PCs, to make sure our G code would not wreck the CNC. We then printed the G code, manually keyed it into an electromechanical paper tape printer and fed the resulting tape into the reader attached to the CNC. Our professor proudly told us that paper tape was a superior media for long term storage of data… Not that our small test programs were ever worth saving.

    • P161911

      i remember stories of my Granddad who worked in maintenance at Lockheed. Some of the machines he had to maintain were mills that ran programs from a large metal disk. Apparently it was some sort of punch card phonograph type thing.

  • jjd241

    More punch hole tech…
    [youtube uL9NudhhSQE youtube]

  • kvhnik

    Yes, I took Fortran with punchcards. But I was a lowly Forestry major at the time so our programs were very short. I remember seeing the guys walking around with the boxes of cards with the diagonal line drawing on them. By the time I went to engineering school just a few years later, PC's have finally come along. phew!

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