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The Number Factory: Punched-Card Machines at the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics

IP.com Disclosure Number: IPCOM000129816D
Original Publication Date: 1994-Sep-30
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Oct-07
Document File: 15 page(s) / 57K

Publishing Venue

Software Patent Institute

Related People

JAN VAN DEN ENDE: AUTHOR [+2]

Abstract

This article describes the application of punched-card machinery for data processing at the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics (DCBS) between 1899 and the mid- 1960s. It demonstrates that the increasing replacement of manual data processing by these machines was not stimulated primarily by their technical improvement, but by specific changes in the bureau's statistical program. Attention is paid to the influence of the labor market, organization of labor in data processing, and the establishment of a special data processing department, paving the way for the introduction of the digital computer. The development of the statistical program of the DCBS is related to its wider social context.

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Copyright ©; 1994 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

The Number Factory: Punched-Card Machines at the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics

JAN VAN DEN ENDE

This article describes the application of punched-card machinery for data processing at the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics (DCBS) between 1899 and the mid- 1960s. It demonstrates that the increasing replacement of manual data processing by these machines was not stimulated primarily by their technical improvement, but by specific changes in the bureau's statistical program. Attention is paid to the influence of the labor market, organization of labor in data processing, and the establishment of a special data processing department, paving the way for the introduction of the digital computer. The development of the statistical program of the DCBS is related to its wider social context.

Punched-card machines represent an important development in the history of data processing. Invented by Herman Hollerith to deal with the American census of 1 89O, their use thereafter spread rapidly. Within decades they were being used on a large scale for statistical and administrative purposes and to a lesser degree for scientific calculations. Many business concerns and institutions owned or leased their own extensive machinery. The punched-card technology formed an important part of the emerging information society.

Although there is considerable literature on the technology itself and on the industry to which it gave rise, the reasons for the use of the punched-card system have received rather little attention.1-8 Insight into these reasons is necessary if we wish to understand the success of the technology. Which social developments created such favorable conditions? James Beniger is one of the few to have formulated an answer to this question. In his book The Control Revolution he postulates that the demand for information technologies grew out of a crisis in the control of production, transport, and distribution of goods in industrial society.9 It is nevertheless worth asking if there might not also have been other reasons.

Another reason for examining the use of punched-card machines is the fact that the organization of labor in today's computer departments is strongly influenced by those that arose in the era of the punched-card machine. As we shall see, data preparation rooms, and forms of systems analysis and rudimentary programming all existed before the computer age.

This article examines the use of punched-card machines within one organization, the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics (DCBS). In 1916 this institution was the first Dutch organization to install card processing machines, and by the Second World War it operated One of the largest punched-card machine systems in the Netherlands. The machines superseded the manual counting that had orig...