Data Entry Through the Ages

5 minute read time.


Last weekend I visited my parents in Victoria and my mom mentioned that she had finally used up all the computer punch cards I had left her when I graduated U-Vic. She likes them because they are more solid than paper but lighter than cardboard and are ideal for using as shopping lists and such. To have lasted this long shows how many cards I needed to do all my first and second year Computer Science courses back then at U-Vic.

This got me to thinking on how entering data into computers has changed over my career. Data entry is changing at an even faster rate these days, so I thought it might be fun to look back and to look forwards as well.

I’m not sure if this makes me appear very old, or shows how slow educational institutions adopt new technology. Not only was I the last first year computer science class to have to use punch cards, but I was also the last year when you weren’t allowed to use calculators in the Provincial exams and had to use a slide rule.

Dec LA36

My first experience of computers was in Computer Science 11 at Oak Bay Secondary in Victoria. The school had a Dec LA36 terminal connected via a 300 baud modem to the PDP-11 at Camosun College.

Basically the terminal printed what you typed and sent it to the computer when you hit enter and then would echo anything sent back. Rather primitive. Certainly was different editing files this way. Back then Basic used line numbers and you edit lines by specifying what you wanted done to a specific line by number.

IBM Punched Cards

Then I went to the University of Victoria, which was a step backwards. Rather than a nice online terminal like the LA36, we had to enter data via punched cards and then receive the output later from a managed line printer.

You had to be careful what you typed since each run took quite a bit of time and used up money from your account. You got good at using functions like duplicating cards up to a point and were always very careful not to drop them. Given the nature of the medium, it was surprisingly robust, in that the cards were actually pretty reliable.

Video Terminals

Once I hit third year, we were allowed to use video terminals to do our Computer Science work. Some people were lucky enough to use very compact languages like APL to program. Others of us had to manage rather slow editors using cursor keys. Admittedly a huge improvement over the LA36 or punch cards.

Personal Computers

For my first Co-op work term, I worked at Island Medical Labs and programmed a Radio Shack TRS-80 computer to do a number of calculations and to print a number of reports for the lab. This was my introduction to personal computing and I was so happy to have a computer all to myself, rather than the time sharing systems I was used to. It had disk drives and a daisy wheel printer. Lots of fun programming in Basic for this.

After my first co-op work term I used much of my earnings to buy a brand new Apple II+. Since I mostly took Numerical Analysis type CS courses, I was actually able to do quite a few labs off my Apple II+. I had to take a cassette tape downtown to get a print out at a computer store since I didn’t have a printer yet (or a disk drive).


A big innovation came when the Apple Lisa came out and introduced the world to the mouse and the GUI Operating System. This was a huge leap forward. I never owned a Lisa or Mac, but eventually started using Windows, a rather pale copy in those days.


Along the way there were quite a few devices that used touch as an input mechanism. But none of them were popular until the iPhone came along. Like GUIs and the mouse, Apple brought this into the mainstream. I have an iPhone 4s and really love it. Using this device is very easy and once used to it, I don’t miss the keyboard from my previous Blackberry at all.


Voice input is finally starting to work properly. Tools like Apple’s Siri are actually starting to be useful. I blogged on this previously here. Certainly people are relying on this in their cars to dial phone and to select music. Even to ask Siri trivia questions as you drive along.


Gesture is still fairly controversial. It’s not clear whether Kinect helps or hinders Xbox. People like the concept but are put off by an always on video camera into their living room. We aren’t quite at the level of Minority Report yet, but we are getting there. I’m not sure what this will do to the cube office environment once this goes mainstream.


Although not really an input device, Virtual Reality and VR Goggles are closely related. In these immersive worlds they combine voice and gesture input with providing an immersive complete visual view. The Oculus Rift was quite popular at CES this year. It will be interesting to see if these can successfully be productized and achieve a mass appeal.


I blogged previously on Google Glasses here. These are fairly controversial. Google is just in the process of releasing these into the mainstream market. It will be interesting to see if they are accepted. They are expensive, and wearers are commonly called glassholes. I’m not sure everyone else likes being filmed all the time, so it will be interesting to see how this evolves.

Mind Reading

We are starting to see devices that can interpret and act on the electrical signals generated from the brain. Right now it takes a fair bit of concentration and training to use these, but as these get more refined, how long before we can practically control our computers via thinking? How long before we have a USB port embedding into our neck where we can read USB sticks directly?


We’ve come a long way from punched cards to Google Glasses. We’ve adapted input devices from all sorts of innovative techniques from keyboards to mice to touch to voice to gestures and R&D into new techniques is progressing at a breakneck pace. It will be really amazing what comes out over the next few years. Which experimental technologies go mainstream, which mainstream technologies die out?