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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Early Digital Meets New Digital

Not a day goes by at the Smithsonian that the topic of “digital” does not come up in conversation, news, emails, or staff meetings.  We use the term “digital” as some futuristic concept, ideal or level that that we hope to achieve, to make our collections more accessible to our visitors, researchers and ourselves.  Although we imagine digital as something we are moving towards, we have forgotten that digital is nothing new; it’s been with us much longer than we realize.  The digital age literally hit me in the face this week during one of my best attempts to digitally scan and preserve a punch tape from the Grace Murray Hopper Collection, 1944-1965.  The 42 feet of tape spiraled out of control like a Slinky across my desk.

The Grace Murray Hopper Collection includes not only the punch tape, but operating instructions, notes on projects from Harvard University, photographs, and newspaper clippings.  Hopper, a celebrated pioneer in the history of computing, participated in a variety of early computer development projects that resulted in the creation of some of the earliest computer systems, including the Navy’s Mark I, II and III mechanical calculators as well as the civilian equivalent models, the ENIAC and UNIVAC.  These early computer systems were the forerunners of computers we use today.  But unlike today's computers, these systems used a punch card/tape type of programming system.

The punch tape shown above is one of the earliest forms of digital information in computer processing and data input and storage during the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Punch tape contained commands to control automated machinery and/or data processing through the identification of the presence or absence of punched holes.  The punch tape was phased out in the 1970’s with the development of magnetic tape storage devices.

In my best efforts to scan and unite this legacy digital material with current digital preservation, I quickly realized why the use of punch cards faded into history.  I experienced some of the same handling problems that the original users of punch card faced.  I found that it is not easy to handle tightly coiled heavy paper material without it tearing or coiling up.  I think it would have been easier to scan our family's pet cat.

Through the scanning process, I developed a few methods to control this material in order to convert the original forty-two feet into thirty-three preserved digital image files totaling two gigabytes and three full days of work.  Controlling the constant uncoiling of the tape proved the most difficult challenge.  In order to control the loose tape, I laid the two coils on top of the scanner and unrolled and rolled the tape through the scanner by hand, image by image.  This allowed me to manually move the tape as if it were a reel-to-reel, keeping the tape from uncoiling.

The second challenge was “how do you merge all the images into one digital image in Photoshop?”  Several attempts at merging the thirty-three images repeatedly produced extremely distorted results.  Since I could not properly merge all the files into one continuous file, I left them as individual files.  Now that this material has been scanned, it will be available for generations of future researchers, while remaining easier to handle!

By Joe Hursey, Reference Archivist
Archives Center, NMAH     

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