The Hollerith hand punch

Nick Barry, project manager at Geac JBA, shares his hand punch reminiscences.

Nick Barry, project manager at Geac JBA, shares his hand punch reminiscences.

Back in the good old days, I was a junior programmer at British Cellophane where I programmed in Cobol on an ageing ICL 1903A. Just to show how easy you kids have it these days, here is my tale.

I had one development shot overnight. This took place after all the live batch work (yes, it was all batch, tape to tape, none of this fancy online, disc-based nonsense) had been completed and the night shift operators got bored of playing computer room cricket.

In order to modify a program, I had to submit written coding sheets to a pool of punch card operators. When they were returned months later, I would put them together with run instructions and off went my job tray to the m/c room. The bad news came back the next morning when I discovered my compilation errors. Enter the hand punch. This saved me the cycle of resubmission to the punch card pool and might even gain a day.

The hand punch was a solidly crafted device. It consisted of an array of keys over a heavyweight punch. You needed two keys to be pressed simultaneously to get numerics and alphas and for special characters three keys.

Each hit put a character in one column and the device moved on to the next (80 columns per card, one card per line of code). The facility to remember these codes off by heart, coupled with the manual dexterity to put your fingers over the correct keys prior to the hit (a bit like digital twister) was a skill much prized.

Mistakes were sometimes made. To save repunching a whole card, you were equipped with special blue card strips that held transferable foil stickers (about 2mm square) that you could peel off, stick over the offending hole and repunch. Such fun.

You could shortcut this by, wait for it, taking one of the hole punch confetti pieces (known technically as "chats") on the end of a wet finger and pressing it into the offending hole. The moisture would cause the chat to swell and plug the hole tightly.

Along with hedge-laying and dry-stone walling, the traditional craft of hand punching is É I can't go on. I'll have to have a lie down. It's been far too emotional.

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