By the 1970's, computers were practically everywhere. They starred on TV, were the brains behind Cold War Doomsday devices, and had even reached “cliché” status in many science fiction circles. Of course, being that they cost upwards of $1,000 – per hour – the computers themselves weren’t everywhere, only their ominous presence. And nothing said “welcome to the computer era” quite like the ubiquitous punch card.

Although punch cards had been used since the 1890’s to store and tabulate data, the 1960’s brought a new, creative use of the medium. The punch card itself – as in, its physical form and its transference from one person to another – became an integral part of the information system process. Since each card could store 80 bytes of data, and writing that data required nothing more than a simple punch machine, “computerized data” could originate anywhere and transfer to whomever, all without the need for an expensive computer.

One after another, organizations added punch cards to their regular paper processes. The telephone company mailed a punch card along with the bill. Department stores used them as price tags, having cashiers return them to data processing when items sold. Utility company equipped service technicians with special clipboards that punched holes in their report cards. Even the phrase printed on nearly every punch card – Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate – had become a cultural phenomenon, influencing popular music and inspiring a movie, two books, and a murder mystery of the same title (but otherwise, unrelated). One could hardly live a day in the mid-1970’s without seeing at least one punch card.

Many, including Robert Reagan, were brought into the modern, punch card era when they arrived at university. Like so many other schools, Robert’s had a course registration system that simplified the sign-up process by giving students punch cards that represented enrollment. By the time the second quarter of his freshman year rolled around, Robert had become intimately familiar with the system.

To register for Creative Writing 101, one had to go the English Department Building and wait in line to secure one of the handful of punch cards that represented an open seat in the class. To get a seat in a physics course, it was off to the physics building to wait in line. And so on, for every other course. Once one had all the course punch cards, he’d wait in line to give them to central registration, who would then print off an official course schedule. Signing up for a full course load took, at best, a whole day, but usually took much longer than that.

As Robert neared graduation, he needed a particular class that was offered only once per year. After standing in line for an hour, he made it to the front only to find out that all the punch cards for that class had been given out.

Frustrated at the potential of having to rearrange his entire schedule or, worse case, not graduate in time, Robert decided to take a stab at decyphering the 80 bytes of data stored on his other punch cards. He figured it’d be a long shot as, surely, the system designer would put some measure in place to ensure that the cards can’t be easily duplicated. At the very least, a sequence or serial number of sorts.

However, when he finished decoding the EBCDIC-based punch card, he noticed that the data worked out to be 74288493. Being that it was the second quarter of 1974, and the course number was 88493, it didn’t take him too long to figure out how to make a punch card for course #82031.

Armed with his counterfeit punch card, Robert waited in line at central registration and handed over his cards. Without a batting an eye, the registration clerk handed him an official schedule. Over the weeks that followed, Robert eagerly anticipated a “registration exceeded” letter – but, that letter never came.

Robert was able to attend the class the following quarter, and no one seemed to be the wiser. And although Robert did consider trying to make his own punch cards for his final quarter, he decided to play it safe and wait in line with everyone else. Though, he did figure out why the Computer Programming students never seemed to mind the course registration process.

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