Big Data — the 1970s version

It’s the late 1970s, and this pilot fish with a brand-new liberal-arts degree gets a data processing job with his state’s Motor Vehicles department — where the tech is a little out of date.

“By 1890, Herman Hollerith was supplying punch card systems, with data on cards that could be read, sorted or summarized by machinery,” says fish. “Punch card tub files — long trays to hold thousands of cards — were in wide use in the mid-1950s when IBM developed rotating magnetic disks to replace tub files.

“But this Motor Vehicles office never went to punch cards. Licenses and titles were entered by hand on multipart carbon-backed forms. All these flimsy slips of paper were filed in the tub file room in the bowels of a state capitol annex.”

That’s paperwork for millions of drivers and millions of cars, every year. It’s overseen by a cadre of older women who have done this job for 30 years or more. Fish’s job: moving large, heavy tubs of flimsy paper forms around as work progresses.

One day, word comes down from on high: Everyone is to cooperate with a guy in a nice suit who’s going to be spending time in the tub file room. He asks a lot of annoying questions about what people are doing, how they do it and what the procedures are.

Fish isn’t sure what’s going on, but he has an idea about what it might be — and he starts taking night classes in computers.

The following year, word again comes down form on high: The whole flimsy-paper system is changing to computers. None of the older employees know anything about computers. A few take retirement. Most are laid off.

But fish pipes up: “I have computer training!” Since he has also seen first-hand how it was done the old way, he’s quickly brought up in pay and rank to train new clerks.

It’s not exactly a perfect transition, though. “The tub files held flimsies for over a decade back, though way-back searches took time and were not often done,” fish says. “Transcribing all the old records was not deemed worth doing.

“And during the changeover, if you had a problem with your car title, you could not get a replacement title. A friend of mine had to resort to a mail-order title from another state so he could sell his motorcycle.”

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