Equal Partners
by Roland Ezri

Equal Partners by Roland Ezri

Equal Partners

By Roland Ezri

"Women are the backbone of all societies. They do a substantial part of the work, and play a major role in raising the future generation yet they are largely powerless. The decisions that count are made by men and foisted upon women."

Writings by Roland Ezri

A Census in the Holy Land

This is not the biblical census.  Despite the insinuations of my children to the effect that I go back a long time, I can assure you that I was born many centuries later!  Nevertheless, for those of you who are still young, this census technology will  appear quite ancient.

Towards the end of the ’50s, Israel was busy taking a census.  I was lucky to be given a temporary (technical) job to help out.  I was quite excited, for I couldn’t imagine how the results would be compiled.

There was a great rush to complete the work.  I was told by the employment office to go for an interview, and be prepared, if I was hired, to start working right away. 

The manager of the data center was blown away by my enthusiasm.  I asked so many questions, he amusingly pointed out that he was interviewing me, and not the other way around.  To my expression of concern as to how it was possible to complete such a mammoth task in such a short time, he assured me that, thanks to a brand new technology, the job was expected to finish ahead of time.

Needless to say, I was hired.  The first item on the agenda was a tour of the center.

First was the keypunch room where everything started.  There, cards were punched with the information provided by the citizens.  Each card was verified by a modified keypunch machine,  called the verifier.  An erroneous card was rejected and repunched again.  This ensured that a minimum of errors went through.  I will talk about the other machines next; but first a word about the punched card.

The punched card is somewhat complex to describe.  Vertically (it has 80 columns) it has the numbers 0 to 9; horizontally (it has 10 lines) the numbers are repeated again as 0 0 0, 1 1 1 and so on.  A place is reserved for the alphabet in the middle.  The operator punches the information on a keyboard and (rectangular) holes are produced accordingly.  The actual information is also automatically typed on top.  How the data is arranged on the card remains a mystery to me to this day.  I guess this was the job of the programmer.  You guessed by now that the hole (or its absence) allowed a current to go, or not to go, through.  Same principle as the “on and off” of our modern computers.    

The punched card died sometimes between the mid to the late 1980s.  It was used for data processing and programming.  A card was produced for each statement in the program.  With thousands of statements, a great number of cards were used.  Today, programs have millions of statements; mercifully cards are no longer used, otherwise there would be no trees left on the planet!

The punched card was one of our most amazing invention.  It has been used since the 19th century.  Censuses, and many other modern processes, would not have been practical without it.  Even after computers were invented, it remained an important tool.

I was assigned to one of the sorters.  This machine sort through a varieties of fields, according to the requirements of the job at hand.  Let’s take as an example sorting by Social Insurance Numbers (SIN).  A SIN has nine numbers; therefore first I sorted through the first number or field.  Once this field was in sequence, I repeated the operation all over again for the second field, and so on.  Even though the machine was very fast, it took a lot of time to process just one field.  Sorting was therefore a time consuming task.  There was, needless to say, many workers assigned to the sorters.

A card came to me many times.  The next sort could be by surname.  The following one could be by codes; examples:  by city, by occupation such as farming, by income, etc.

Sorting was the lowest task on the totem pole.  Nevertheless, it drove the sorter nuts.  Any mistake, and my sorting was ruined and had to be repeated.  It’s not so bad if I am still sorting the first field, however, if I am on, say, the fifth field, it’s a disaster.  Another problem was, if I didn’t feed my cards properly, the machine shredded my cards to pieces.  Let me assure you that the keypunch supervisor was not a happy camper when I went to her with a bunch of shredded cards.  In Israel people have a tendency to speak their mind.  
Other machines were even more maddening.  You really had to focus on your work.  The least error could create havoc.  It’s not for nothing that IBM provided us with many signs with the word “THINK.”

After all these years, these are the machines (and their functions to the best of my recollection) that I remember.

The collator.  It consolidated all the cards sorted out by the different sorting operators.

The merger.  It merged cards by groups; for example, all the people living on mochavim (collective farms).

The calculator.  The merged cards were handed to an operator (there was only one such specialist) who used them to provide a total for a group.  Following the above example, how many individuals live on mochavim?  This operator eventually provided the overall total for the country.

The printer.  This individual (again, there was only one such specialist) had the most demanding job.  He printed all the reports, and an overall report that eventually found its way in the census book.  This employee was the most knowledgeable, and the go-to person if you had a tough problem.

The above four machines were controlled by a side panel.  For each new job, the operator took the panel out and replugged the different wires.  This was a very exacting task, since it controlled the machine.  The least error caused a major screw-up.  Many a time, the printer operator got funny results and cursed a blue streak. 

(The sorter was simply controlled by levers that you moved back and forth according to the field(s) you wanted to sort).

One day, during coffee break, the printer guy told us that, in America, they were working on an “electronic brain” which would one day do all the tasks that we were now doing.  With a sweep of his arm around the room, he said, “everything here will be replaced by one machine!”  Everybody was skeptic.  But he was prepared for that.  Out of his briefcase, he extracted a magazine, and opened it at the appropriate page.  The only problem was that it was in English, and nobody read English except for him and me.  Therefore, it fell upon me to read the article and translate it in Hebrew.  Everybody was silent while I read this new revelation!  Judging by the article, this “brain” was far from being ready.  None of us therefore was in danger of losing his job any time soon!

Despite all the difficulties, and the stone age tools, the census was completed with an acceptable delay.  When the manager received the census book signed by the Minister, he gathered us all around him and said:  “This is the result of our hard work,” and with a look around the room at the machines which were now silent, “and the fruit of this amazing technology.”

This then is how it was done in those faraway days.  Take a good look at your computer and never, ever, take it for granted.                

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