The Fuehrer’s Database

By Ray Schultz

Twitter received kudos this month when it said it would not assist in the creation of a Muslim registry. Of the nine companies queried, it was the only one to give a definite “no.”

Good for Twitter. But it made me wonder: Did a country ever use information technology to identify people by religion?

Sure it did. The Nazis utilized a metal punch-card sorting system to find Jews and send them to their deaths, Edwin Black writes in his 2001 book, IBM and the Holocaust.

In essence, the equipment leased to the Nazis by IBM’s German subsidiary, Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft (or Dehomag), was a state-of-the-art mailing list system for that time.

With Dehomag’s help, the Nazis conducted a census, asking pointed questions about religion and ancestry, Black alleges.

“What emerged,” Black continues, “was a profession-by-profession, city-by-city, and indeed a block-by-clock revelation of the Jewish presence.” Moreover, by cross-sorting the columns, the Nazis could “identify who among the Jews would be its first targets for confiscation, arrest, imprisonment, and ultimately expulsion.”

Another effort occurred a few years later when Germany was about to launch the war; they even went through old church records to find Jews whose families had converted to Christianity generations before.

Later, the punch-cards were used to code the demises of the victims, and record which ones had received “special handling” (usually, extermination in a gas chamber), Black claims.

“All Auschwitz name information, including workers still alive, deaths, and transferees, was continuously punched into the camp’s Hollerith system,” Black charges. “Tabulated totals were wired each day to the SS Economics Administration and other offices in Berlin to process cards and lists for each inmate transferred.”

It’s not clear how much guilt is shared by IBM/Demohag. But one thing is certain: Technology can result in monstrous ends, especially when misused by states in partnership with the private sector.

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.

Goodbye to Gutenberg

By Ray Schultz

Sometimes we take progress for granted, without knowing its history. A half century ago, Newsweek published an article titled Goodbye to Gutenberg that all but predicted our own information age.

“At MIT, a research team grapples with the problems of developing a nation-wide computer network that will make every bit of knowledge—whether stored in old books or just obtained in a laboratory—instantly available,” Newsweek reported on Jan. 24, 1966.

It continued: “And an IBM scientific-literature device now serving NASA presages the day when a living-room photocopier linked to a computer instantly produces an individually selected group of stories and editorials from any publication the armchair reader wants to see.”

All this was highly unbelievable to many people. But Newsweek devoted several pages to the phenomenon.

“Pipe Dream: As the enthusiasts see it, the answer to (the information explosion) is a vast information network capable of storing, retrieving and moving all kinds of data at high speeds all over the country or even the world. Instead of having books, newspapers and magazines printed, publishers may some day pipe their materials into the system, which would then produce it on demand at high speed—or so the pipe dream goes.”

That wasn’t all. “Progress toward this dial-a-thought world has already been made at MIT by the INTREX (for information transfer experiments) staff. Under the direction of physicist Carl. F.J. Overhage, INTREX is setting up an experimental laboratory to test ways of giving a student instant access to information. Some of the possible tools contemplated include xerography, film projection and even telephone communication between computer and user.

Does anyone remember what the world was like 50 years ago, when LBJ was president and the Beatles were in their glory? If you needed to communicate with a colleague overseas, you sent an air-mail letter. Or, if it was urgent, you paid to send a telex. Computers existed, but few companies could afford them; those that dared to use them had to book off-site timeshares.

On most newspapers, reporters wrote their stories on typewriters, or called them in from a phone booth while a rewrite person typed them. Then an editor marked them up, and they were typeset by an expensive unionized linotype operator, sitting at a hot type machine, as I recall. Finally, they were proofed off a newsprint sheet, and the corrections were painstakingly (but not always accurately) made. All this took hours, and it was expensive. The pressure turned reporters, editors and makeup artists into dipsomaniacs.

But Newsweek reported that copy and manuscript editing could be turned into “an efficient, rapid procedure.” Indeed, copy typed into second-generation computers “will be hyphenated, justified and fit to a layout,” it went on. “Then each complete page will be presented to the editor in the form of a high-quality TV image of 500 or more lines to the inch. Using a light pencil (an electronic pointer capable of directing an image from one part of the screen to another) and keyboard, the editor rewrites and changes the order of paragraphs and the arrangement of stories on the page that will be stored in the computer memory. Such a system would eventually permit him to make up a page with any type, and set whole stories at the flick of a switch.”

This was no pipe dream, the magazine continued: “The first sale of such a computer system has already been made by IBM. The purchaser, Time Inc. (employing a high-speed printer instead of TV), will use it in its book division and three magazines. To be delivered late this year, the system will consist of two $350,000 IBM 360 computers each served by three 512,000-word auxiliary memories.

I’m sure that the people on Newsweek’s business side read this article very carefully. That said, I never saw even a weak version of this system in a publishing office until the 1980s. And it was a long slog from there to where we are today.

Still, visionaries saw it coming at some point. To return to Newsweek:

“Books and newspapers will no longer exist,” predicts Marshall McLuhan, the new savant of the new technology. Publishing will become an active serving of the human mind. Instead of a book, people will get a research package done to suit their own needs.”

Well, we’re not quite there yet. And do we want to be? The only way to read Anna Karenina is in print. But Newsweek got one thing right.

“It publishing and journalism do not buy automation, it seems, automation will buy them.”

Boy, did that turn out to be true.