What Looked Good Then


By Ray Schultz

Think back to a hundred years ago. Woodrow Wilson was President, Jess Willard was heavyweight champ and a terrible world war was being fought in Europe (one that we’d soon be fighting, too). But business went on—especially B2B business. And there were new tools for targeting customers. We’ve mentioned this before, but here’s the Scientific American story that described the cutting-edge technology of the time—metal punch-cards. It may sound primitive now, but it lasted right into the 1960s, and probably even longer for some backwards companies. Here’s the report in its entirety, from the Nov. 18, 1916 issue:

 The Doom of the Hand-Picked Mailing List

Suppose you were at the head of the sales force of a large jobbing house, and in planning your fall campaign wanted a list of all dealers who had bought a thousand dollars last year and had paid promptly when due. And suppose your accounting department were sufficiently up to date to possess a card ledger. What would you do?

The chances are that you would get a clerk to plough through that card ledger and pick out all the cards on which the postings showed the conditions in question to have been met. Then a week later you would chase another man through the cards on a still-hunt for a class of smaller customers, and he would find several buyers of the first class who had been overlooked, and who had consequently been mortally insulted by the failure of your first flight of agents to call.

In addition to this inaccuracy, the compiling of handpicked lists from a card file consumes a lot of time. This appears to be of no great moment in the case cited, except in so far as the clerk’s time is money. But imagine a valued customer, in any line of trade, kept cooling his heels for a couple of hours while the index was examined, card by card, for a property meeting all of his rather complex requirements. His state of mind would probably be such as to indicate clearly to the seller the wisdom of the invention of a San Francisco man which has made obsolete the time-killing and patience-trying business of thumbing over the card index for information.

The theory of this device is simple enough. Each question which the cards are designed to answer about the names appearing on them is assigned a definite position; and in that position on each card appears a little round hole. As long as the hole stays there, the card answers the question by “No”; as the course of business reveals the fact that the answer should be “Yes,” the card is modified to make it so—the hole is removed.

The reader will laughingly ask how to remove a hole By his ingenious reply the inventor has at the same time solved the urgent problem of how to make the card speak up and tell its story. The way to remove a hole, he argues, is to swallow it up in a bigger one; and then of course the way to find whether it has been removed is to put something in it that would fit the original opening and see whether it still fits.

Let us look at a concrete instance to see how the thing works. We illustrate the card used by a large California land company in the classification of its inquiries. As in every case the holes are in uniformly spaced rows and columns. Beside each appears, in words or when necessary by key number, an indication of the information which it gives. In addition each hole carries a number corresponding to tits position. It is found convenient to group in the same row or column holes which give information in the same field; it is then frequently possible to use general headings which abbreviate the headings of the individual holes

 It is plain that with all the cards in a drawer punched in the same way, the entire collection may be locked in place by the insertion of a rod into one of the series of superposed holes thus provided. But if on any card one of the holes be enlarged, an effort to lock the cards by the use of this hole will leave that particular card free to move. This leads us to the modus operandi of the new file.

Initially all the holes are intact, all the questions answered “No.” As a posting is made or information developed which makes the correct answer “Yes, a long, narrow hand-punch is applied to the hole, joining it with the on immediately below it. Thus the card illustrated states that Mr. Roe has inquired for a small tract of improved land in San Joaquin County suitable for residence and dry farming. He will be especially interested in terms and school facilities, and has a friend in the neighborhood. He wants land suitable for poultry and small fruits.

The first time a small tract of improved land in San Joaquin County is placed in the hands of this concern the drawer containing these records of inquiries is placed upon a table. In the drawer front are holes corresponding to those in the cards. In the positions 12, 23, 33, metal rods are thrust right through the drawer from front to back, after which the drawer is turned upside down. Every card which has not had all three holes 12, 23, 33, extended by the slot punch will be locked in place by the three roads; every card which has these three slots, on the other hand, will at once slide down and project below the others. By rods through one or two of the bottom row of holes, which is there for just this purpose, the projecting cards are prevented from siding back when the drawer is righted. The rods which served to separate these cards from the body of the file are then withdrawn, and the selected cards may be removed one by one and examined.

It will be seen that any single item can be selected by using a single rod, or that any combination of items, however complicated, may be secured by using a quantity of rods. It is a simple matter, for instance, to pick out all inquiries who want to rent a large unimproved tract convenient to a school; all stock purchased within a given period for given departments from given manufacturers and retailing within a given price range; or to discover whether an employee exists who has a high record of sales and personal efficiency who speaks Spanish and Portuguese, who is a Catholic and single, who has a high school education and is familiar with the details of certain departments of the business. How long, under the old systems, would it take the president of the Steel Corporation, for instance, to find such an employee to send to South America? The punch holes would locate him or deny his existence in two minutes.

This appears to be the file without restriction. In the one drawer the records are responsive to alphabetical, chronological, geographical, numerical or topical selection without disarrangement, delay or confusion. The holes may occupy the entire card or they may be placed at the bottom of a larger ledger card, with space above for postings. And if you ask the file a foolish question, it refuses to answer—that is, it “throws a blank.” Thus if you try to locate all names living in Boston and in New York, the Boston rod locks all the New Yorkers, the New York rod locks all Bostonians, and both these lock all other cards. A similar result will follow any impossible classification which may be attempted.

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