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Circling the Square

Wired for Thought

By Samuel B. Potter

Ever since 1941 undergraduates have amounted to little more than so many holes in a piece of card-board, at least so far as University Hall is concerned. Almost all contact between students and the college administration is supervised by seven IBM machines which spend eight hours a day translating names, grades, courses and other information on 4400 students into little holes, sorting the perforated cards into the proper order for any purpose, and translating the results back into English.

When any undergraduate enters college, he immediately is assigned a nice new impersonal number, say 262950, which a Key Punch stamps on a master card in the form of small rectangular punches, along with other holes standing for the data on his application card.

When 262950 hands in his study card, a square contrivance called the Reproducer transfers the holes representing his name from the master card to four course cards.

The Sorter, which resembles a glorified cigarette dispenser, single-mindedly sorts all the cards into class lists, academic rankings, the number of bald veterans in Indic Philology or anything Registrar Kennedy wants. When February comes around, the Sorter arranges all the course cards in the proper order for exam schedules; from there these cards are shoved into another big box called the Collator which ferrets out all conflicts.

When exam period is all over, the Key Punch returns to record 262950's grades. These are fed into the Tabulator, a little monster with an electronic memory which chatters out everything from the grade sheets sent home to father to statistics, proudly posted on bulletin boards, about the number of dean's list men in each House. But before these facts are sent out, they must go through the Interpreter which translates the little holes into English.

Up to 1941 there was no need for all this, because few people wanted information like grade sheets. But demands on the Registrar's office grew until they required a squad of typists and weeks of time. The first machines to appear in the University Hall basement were the Sorter, a Key Punch, and the Tabulator, the minimum necessary for any IBM system. The Collator, Reproducer, Interpreter, and another Key Punch were added later in the year.

These machines can do any enumerating job. First it is a matter of arranging combinations of little holes in the cards into the sequence which will produce the required letters and numbers. Then a series of these letters and numbers representing various categories, is arranged in the sequence which will produce whatever compilations the Registrar wants. When the cards go through any one of the machines, electric contacts press against the card-board; wherever the contacts go through they set off a bewildering process which eventually produces the desired result.

Sometimes things go wrong. Occasionally the Tabulator gets dust in its innards and obstinately prints the wrong letter every time a hole appears in one of the 60 columns on each card.

The Sorter is easily upset by the weather. If the air is dry, operations may suddenly close down with a screech when a card jams; wet weather can produce the same noisy result. The others are better behaved. When something goes wrong with the Collator, it automatically stops and politely flashes little red lights.

There is little that these square, black calculators cannot do. They cannot digest any name with more than 18 letters. The unfortunate who has such a name gets a new and shorter title along with his number. These machines cannot think either, despite the ubiquitous little signs, labeled THINK in big black letters, surrounding them. But they come too close for comfort.

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