Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

A Computer Story

Larry Brady sent me a picture today, which I pass on to you here. It drove memories to the forefront of my mind. Here they are for all to see.

I once punched these cards in the Psychometric Laboratory at UNC where I did my undergraduate work. I used mispunched cards for class notes, which relieved me of the expense of purchasing 3x5s.

When I found errors in the transcripts I worked from, I corrected them. However, the people who were running the project, not realizing the things I corrected were not only errors but inconsistencies in their own system, required that I stop editing the cards, so I allowed the inconsistencies to pass. They were psychologists after all, not linguists.

That was at a time when the 16k computer required approximately two weeks between jobs for technicians physically to change all the wires, which they did manually. There were no executable software programs in 1956 that could complete that task so easily as they do today.

The Lab received a grant to increase the size of the computer, bringing it up to, I think, 64k. They had to add several rooms to the two-story mansion in which the 16k computer was located to accommodate the upgrade. Remember, back then computers ran on vacuum tubes about the size of my fist, one for each gate (0 or 1).

I came to the office one day to find much consternation. In their grant application they had forgotten to add the air conditioning. As you probably know, vacuum tubes were just fancy light bulbs that produced a lot of heat. The additional air conditioning would take up space equivalent to at least one large new room. I don’t know how they worked that out; I graduated before that problem was resolved.

One Response to “A Computer Story”

  1. Paul Ogden Says:

    In 1975 my partner and I purchased a CompuGraphic typesetting machine the size of a home refrigerator for about $6,000. I don’t recall how much memory it had in computer terms, but I do recall that the display was a quarter-inch high strip of LEDs that could show only a single line of type, the amount that could be held in memory. Entering data was by means of a QWERTY keyboard with additional keys; output was generated by a pulsed xenon light beam passing through a negative of the desired letter, then through a lens, from which it was projected onto a roll of positive (white) photographic paper that had to be developed in a (separate) darkroom. Changing the type size required changing the lens, and in any case, we had only two or maybe three lenses.

    When in the mid-90s I worked at the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot, Israel, a major source of pride was the 1950s WEIZAC computer in the lobby. See

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