Primary Sources in Science Classrooms: Computer Science and Programming with Punched Cards (Part 2)

This post was written by Trey Smith, the Library of Congress 2015-16 Science Teacher in Residence. It is the second part of a two-part series written for Computer Science Education Week, December 7-13.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Charles Babbage imagined, but never built, a general purpose computing machine. By the end of the century, American thinker Herman Hollerith ushered in a new era of computing with a mechanical system that could process and organize data from the 1890 U.S. census. The story of the census and Hollerith’s electric tabulating machine offers a rich opportunity to explore the complexities of computational thinking.

 
[Woman using a Hollerith pantographic card-punching machine]

[Woman using a Hollerith pantographic card-punching machine] 1915

The Story of the Census Indianapolis Journal, May 4, 1890

The Story of the Census Indianapolis Journal, May 4, 1890

Plate, punch card, and instructions for Herman Hollerith’s Electric Sorting and Tabulating Machine, ca. 1895, image 8.

Using the Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool and a set of primary sources, teachers can introduce students to Hollerith’s electric tabulating machine.

A closer look at Hollerith’s system using primary sources reveals similarities with modern computers. For instance, the electric tabulating machine allowed staff to sort and collate data at a rate previously unattainable. Further, the final paragraph of the Railroad Gazette article forecasts how industries could use the system to discover patterns in data over various time scales.

Students might note, however, that Hollerith’s invention did not use binary code. Additionally, while circuits are fundamental to the tabulating machine then and microchips today, the purposes and scales of the circuits in each device are dissimilar.

Statistical Atlas of the United States, 1898

Statistical Atlas of the United States, 1898 (p. 55)

Students can explore a statistical atlas of the U.S. created using 1890 census data to understand computing during Hollerith’s time. Today’s computers and software allow for the creation of graphs and charts—displayed on screens. In contrast, Hollerith’s system did not have the complexity that students may take for granted. The electric tabulating machine speedily summarized data, but people drew data visualizations by hand.

Students can also learn quite a bit about possibilities for data representation from the statistical atlas. Take a look at page 55. What’s being communicated using the census data?

Letter Alexander Graham Bell to Mabel Bell, January 29, 1901 (p. 4)

Letter Alexander Graham Bell to Mabel Bell, January 29, 1901

Hollerith’s machine was used for future censuses. A 1901 letter from Alexander Graham Bell to Mabel Hubbard Bell illustrates how the system required a different kind of thinking. Alexander Bell, who is best known for his telephone inventions, was trying to design punched cards that could collect a special set of data during the next census.

On page 4 of the letter Bell explains, “The thing that is wanted last I must consider first and that which is needed almost immediately should be last in my thoughts.” Students might consider:

  • What kind of data did Bell hope to collect?
  • Why might he have been interested in this data?

Beyond these questions, however, is a larger question in computer science: How does one translate a problem such that it can be understood by a non-human system that can then provide an answer that makes sense to a human at the end of the process?

Primary Sources in Science Classrooms: Paint, Poisoning, Proportions, and Public Health and Policy

Throughout history, humans have sought out substances to color, coat, and cover dwellings, objects, and bodies. Modern inorganic pigments and dyes joined natural and organic substances used by the ancients. The properties of one substance, lead white, once made it the pigment of choice in white paint. However, the toxicity of lead contributed to a public health crisis.

Kate DiCamillo: Stories Connect Us

This post is by Rebecca Newland, the Library of Congress 2013-14 Teacher in Residence. On Friday, January 10, 2013 the Library of Congress inaugurated Kate DiCamillo as the 2014-15 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.  The role of the Ambassador is to raise “national awareness of the importance of young people’s literature as it relates […]

Crossing the Delaware: General George Washington and Primary Sources

When I’ve asked my students, “Would anyone be interested in a trip on a ferry?” they’ve all cheered with excitement. But I wonder how many of us would be brave enough to take a night voyage through an ice-clogged river on a boat battered by snow and high winds. Primary sources from the Library of Congress can let students explore this momentous–and shivery–event.

Point of View in Photographs – All in the Details, Part 2

Focusing on details in a set of visual images can reinforce the idea that photographs have a point of view. Studying and comparing various photographs of a subject can reveal a great deal about how each photographer viewed the subject. In the previous post,we asked you to post your answers to the question “Which of these photographs are of the same person?” This post will explore the answer.

Point of View in Photographs – All in the Details

Focusing on details in a set of visual images can reinforce the idea that photographs have a point of view. Studying and comparing various photographs of a subject can reveal a great deal about how each photographer viewed the subject. Study the set of images and, in the comments, post your answer to the question. We’ll answer the question in the next post.