Saturday, November 04, 2006

In the Lair of the Beast

by Gina Sestak

Once upon a time, computers were gigantic temperamental beasts confined to temperature-controlled rooms and approachable only by highly trained computer operators who fed them data consisting of holes punched in cardboard cards.

In such a time, I spent a summer working as a control clerk at Central Data Center, where information was processed for five local hospitals. These were the Vietnam War years; a conscienscious objector* was performing his alternative service by hand-carrying large envelopes stuffed with paper around the hospital system. He would bring me the raw information on pages that were set up to be filled in by hand, one character to each little box on the form. I would log these pages in by hand, writing in one of two large notebooks, then pass it along to the keypunchers, a group of 20 or so women who operated the keypunch machines. Keypunch machines had a keyboard similar to a modern computer keyboard, but instead of in-putting information directly into the computer, they would punch holes in cardboard cards, 80 usable columns to the card, each of which contained a number from zero through nine. The words in this paragraph would require a stack of cards like that.

After the keypunchers had keypunched the data, the computer operators would feed it into the machine, and processed information would come out on wide sheets of continuous-feed paper -- pages separated only by perforated lines, with rows of holes along each edge into which pronges fit. The prongs were attached to a device that turned, pulling the pages along.

My job was to take stacks of those pages, many inches thick, and separate them by job, log them out (by hand in the notebook), and send each to the appropriate hospital department via conscientious objector delivery. Special time-critical information was sometimes sent through a pneumatic tube, a wonderful device made up of pipes that snaked through the hospital complex. You put the pages to be sent into a container that looked like an old-fashioned thermos, set the destination by turning numbers on its top, then put it into the tube to be whisked through pipes to its destination. Use of the tube was strictly time controlled to prevent collisions.

What did I learn from this job? I learned that technology changes. In 1970, the computer center was on the cutting edge of science; it seems laughably primitive now. A few decades before, the pneumatic tube had been the star attraction. Now, I doubt it still exists. We no longer need tubes or people to hand-carry paper; information moves immediately through cyberspace. And yet, I suspect that ten or twenty years from now, people will look back at how we sat in front of a desktop pc or laptop, tapping keys, and shake their heads at how backward we were.

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*For those readers too young to remember the military draft: The government held a lottery and picked birthdays at random. Young men were forced into military service in the order in which their birthdays had been drawn. Those who had moral qualms about fighting in a war could (if the government believed they were sincere) fulfill their obligation by doing something other than military service, like working in a hospital.

7 comments:

Nancy said...

Gina, that pneumatic tube does exist! At Shadyside Hospital, they use it to move narcotics from the pharmacy to the patient's room so they never touch human hands---and risk being stolen. Yep, times have changed.

I am wondering if you're ever going to run out of hilarious jobs to tell us about!

Tory said...

Gina: That job would be a great setting for a "cold case" episode. Or any sort of novel you could write. I can imagine the "Peyton Place" of keypunch operators!

My co-worker and I were just commenting yesterday on the Fortran and Basic computer courses we took in college. They do seem laughably primative! Yet, they also gave us an understanding of what computers can and can't do and why.

Cathy said...

Another pneumatic tube--at the drive through window at my PNC Bank to move the checks and ID to the teller inside and back. It would be interesting to know if these contraptions exist in foreign countries who haven't upgraded.

Another peek into yet another job. Enjoyed hearing about the dinosaur computers, which hardly seem possible.

Annette said...

Most of the banks I've seen with drive thru windows use those pneumatic tubes. And I've seen them at a few hospitals, too.

Lisa Curry said...

Gina, this takes me back to my high school computer programming class! I hated those little punch cards. My programs NEVER ran. Thank goodness for the advent of the personal computer and Microsoft Windows!

Kristine said...

On one hand, I'm amazed at how advanced we've become with computer, but then again, with viruses and crashes, I wonder if we're moving in the wrong direction.

Interesting post, Gina. Your past lives amaze me!

Rebecca Drake said...

My kids love those tubes at the bank! My son, who is a child of the computer age, has his own lap-top and regularly communicates via email and ichat, wants this tube for our house so he could zip messages to other family members.