Early Aggie IT: Before key words, students used notched cards and knitting needles

By Phil Riley

Searching tirelessly for information for his term paper, a UC Davis student working in the library pulls out a stack of cards with holes along their edges. He lines up the cards, then puts a knitting needle through one of the holes so that the needle penetrates the whole stack.

He lifts the cards. Holding the needle horizontally, he lets go of the cards, and a few drop to the table. He browses the notes printed on each and, satisfied with his finding, takes them to use in his research.

His research method is primitive to us, but this student is not technologically oblivious. Google will not be invented for another 50 years. He's doing this search with punchcards--a now nearly forgotten way to sort basic information that existed before online search engines made the task easy.

UC Davis, now celebrating its centennial, had distinct information technology needs in the earliest years of the campus, just as it does today. Back then, transportation, punchcards, microfilm, photography, and phones were efficient ways to fill these needs. Efficient being a relative term.

Punchcards, trains, and automobiles

Aggies of 50 to 100 years ago used technology to communicate information, much like now. But our information technology runs on computers. Theirs did not; it was more of a communication technology.

And, back when UC Davis was UC Berkeley's farm extension, communication technology was largely the same thing as transportation technology. Except when using telephones, which were a lot less common then, sending a message meant sending it physically--often by railroad. The trains between Berkeley and Davis carried mail, library resources, and people between the campuses. (A bus linking the Davis and Berkeley campuses came later, and still shuttles library materials and people today.)

What ever kinds of communication technology they used, the first Aggies didn't write about it much; mentions of that kind of early technology on campus are hard to find. A search of old copies of The California Aggie newspaper (called The Weekly Agricola until 1922) and the El Rodeo yearbook found nothing about any type of communication technology in the first decades of the campus.

Learning about the roots of UC Davis IT requires talking to campus experts who have studied those years, or who saw the remnants of that technology when they started here.

Dennis  OjakangasDennis Ojakangas, shown in a Davis newspaper photo from the early 1970s, works at a terminal connected by phone to an early Burroughs computer system. He was the first director of campus computing

Dennis Ojakangas, the first director of campus computing at UC Davis, came to the campus in the early 1970s. Now retired, he remembers the first computer he used in the 1950s, before he started working here. Typewriters created paper tape that operators fed into a computer to input information. Later, these machines were upgraded to IBM punchcard readers, which used a keypunch to create the cards. They worked much like Scantrons, but had 80 columns and read holes rather than pencil marks.

Ojakangas said UC Davis probably used something similar to these punchcard models before he arrived.

Different punchcards were used in the middle of the 20th century to store notes and sort bibliographies and other records, said Michael Buckland, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley's School of Information. They were called edge-notched punchcards.

"They came with holes pre-punched along the edges," Buckland said. "Suppose you assigned the first hole the meaning 'UC Davis' and the second hole 'UC Berkeley,' and so on. Then every time you had a card related to UC Davis, you cut away the card between the edge and the first hole--such that there was a valley or notch, not a hole."

"When you wanted to do a search, you would insert a knitting needle through the whole deck of cards through the first hole and lift," he said. "The cards that dropped on the table were only the cards related to UC Davis."

If a card dropped down that was not associated with UC Davis, it was called a false drop. The term continues, used now when a search engine finds something unrelated to the search.

UC Davis in the USSR

Punchcards also helped organize microforms, a method of compressing and storing information on a media that resembles camera film. Microforms were copies of documents that had been turned into transparencies and shrunk. Their size made them easy to store, but viewing them required magnification and a backlight.

Two common types of microforms are microfilm, or a reel of negatives, and microfiche, a flat sheet of multiple negatives. Shields Library has an extensive collection of old microforms, including archives of The Aggie on microfilm.

A  microfilm  readerA microfilm reader in the lower level of Shields library displays a front page of The Weekly Agricola from the 1910s

Microfilm was sometimes mounted on aperture cards, a type of punchcard. Used for archiving, the card described whatever information was contained on the microfilm.

Microforms at UC Davis were used in various ways to store document s or photographs, including images shot through a microscope. Scientists used photographs to document and reference their work. Photos also recorded history, and provided agricultural information.

"I have been told that some of the best visual evidence of rural Russia in the 1920s is in photographs taken by U.S. agricultural advisors from UC Davis" and other U.S. agriculture schools and tractor manufacturers, Buckland said, "who went out to assist the development in the early Soviet Union."

Surveyors took photos from hot air balloons initially, and then from airplanes after the First World War, Buckland added.

Telephones were already a prominent technology by the time the Davis campus opened. Phone technology changed as phones became more reliable, powerful and diverse, but their fundamental function has not changed as much. Ojakangas said phones have served the same basic purpose for years.

Of course, early Aggies had nothing like cell phones. Their phones were wired into place and relatively scarce. Bill Allewelt, a former editor of The Aggie who graduated in 1950, said the 30 people in his Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity house shared one phone.

"We relied mostly on postal and phone service for communication," he said. "People today are in much tighter communication."

Stragglers and speed demons

Technology has progressed, but attitudes towards technology might not have changed as much.

University Archivist John Skarstad said that in his experience, people's outlook on technology has been consistent. Some approach new technology slowly and with apprehension, while "speed demons" see how much they can push it.

"Some people expected new technology to be greater than it was," he said. "That's always been true. I'm not sure that the approach has changed much."

Today's attitudes towards technology resemble those in the past, Ojakan gas said, except that now "more people are using it in additional ways."

"We don't know what technology will do in 10 years," Skarstad said. Today we can video-chat with friends thousands of miles away, but compared to some unimagined technology of the future, webcams might seem as primitive as needle-sorted punchcards.

What farmer on the Davis campus in 1908, waiting days for a letter from Berkeley, believed that a century later an email would cover the same distance in seconds? How can anyone, past or present, know where technology will take us?

Maybe we aren't so different from our centennial counterparts after all.

Student writer Phil Riley is majoring in sociology and communication.