Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate

Courtesy of longtime p3 correspondent Doc TV comes the news that the John W. Backus, head of the team at IBM that developed of FORTRAN 50 years ago, died last weekend.

(Doc TV added this note: "I have graduate students who have no idea what a punch card is. Sigh.")

Fittingly for the inventor of a programming language whose cryptic debugging messages were part of its lore, the NYTimes reports: "His daughter Karen Backus announced the death, saying the family did not know the cause, other than age."

When I was an undergrad at Purdue there were computer science majors there who were rumored to be able to hold a punched card up to the light and read it like you and I would read a newspaper. They were creepy guys, but I don't believe I ever saw one of them take the challenge and fail.

For Doc TV's students, here's a true story from those days:

A standard dorm-room prank was called "pennying someone in." The rooms had big, solid, thick, fireproof doors and heavy metal frames. If someone was inside with the deadbolt locked (for whatever reason), several large guys would push inward against the door, forcing a tiny gap between door and frame on the outside. Wedge that gap full of pennies, and it would jam the side of the deadbolt so tightly against the strikeplate in the door frame that the person inside could no longer unlock the door by hand using the deadbolt knob. You were stuck until some sympathetic soul pried out the pennies.

This being Purdue, it soon turned into an engineering battle of wits.

Someone eventually figured out that driving the pins out of the door hinge (from the inside) would release the pressure on the deadbolt, the pennies would fall out, and you could open your door again.

So it wasn't long before some bright fellow realized that if, instead of pennies (which limited you to increments of 0.155mm), you stuffed that gap with punch cards, not only did the much thinner cards allow you to form a tighter wedge to begin with, but then--and this is the fiendishly clever part--when you poured water on the cards they swelled up and jammed themselves in even tighter than you could do by hand. Now even the loosen-the-pins trick didn't work.

Tear off the dry ends of the cards sticking out, as close to the door frame as you can, and there's no longer any easy way to get the door open from the outside either.

RIP, John W. Backus--folded, but neither spindled nor mutilated.

(Image via Wikipedia.)

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