Watch your step

Hey, everyone, it will be fun, like doing a jigsaw puzzle together!

It’s 1969 and pilot fish is a college sophomore taking several computer programming classes. There are no terminals and no timesharing, only batch processing. Students punch their programs onto cards in a room with a half-dozen keypunch machines, carefully check them against their heavily marked-up printouts and repunch any cards that need to be corrected. The final step is to carry the card decks to a nearby table, where a teaching assistant takes the rubber bands off, puts separator cards between the decks, and carefully places them in metal trays. Once a day, he loads the trays onto a rolling cart and takes them to the computer room.

And once a night the operators run all the decks on the school’s IBM 360/40 mainframe and wrap the resulting printouts around them. The next day the teaching assistant retrieves the bundles and stacks them on a table, where students pick them up.

One day the TA’s rolling cart is missing, and he faces the dismal prospect of lugging the heavy trays one at a time down the long hallway to the computer room. Fish offers to carry one tray so the TA won’t have to make two trips. The open tray has no handle, so fish balances it on top of his palms right in front of his face — he really can’t see where he’s going. Fortunately, a computer operator hears them coming and opens the door of the computer room. In goes fish, and down goes fish — with 5,000 cards scattered everywhere; fish hasn’t been in the computer room before and knows nothing about raised floors.

Although several students volunteer to help with the recovery operation, it takes all afternoon and evening. They make separate piles of cards related by color, edge markings and other clues. Then they study the students’ printouts line by line so they can reconstruct the original program decks. Fortunately, all the programs are in Fortran, which provides valuable clues such as variable names and line numbers. And many of the programs are short class assignments that are only a few dozen cards long.

Eventually everything is in order and apologies are issued. The next day, many students bring in colored felt-tip pens to give each of their cards a marking unique to each student. Nonetheless, fish never again volunteers to help with the card trays.

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