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1998-04-06 23:56:54


The Origin of Y2K: Computer Punch Cards



Economist Edward Deak identifies the origin of the two-digit tradition: the 80-character punch card. This challenges the traditional explanations: disk space limitations and computer memory.

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I have with me a Hollerith card that is the departure point for the current problem. In the early days of mechanical and later electronic tabulation and analysis these cards contained the tabulation programs and raw data. They are 80 characters wide, severely limiting the amount of information that can be stored on a single card. Many shortcuts were employed to economize on the use of card space including the truncation of annual dates to the last two digits. As program and data storage moved from the card to magnetic tape and disks old habits died hard. I remember writing programs in the computer languages of Basic, PL-I, APL, Cobal, and Fortran using truncated dates. In fact economy of instructions was a hallmark of good programming. And even if anyone thought of truncated dates as a potential problem, who would expect that programs written for computer systems in the 1970's and 1980's would still be in use today. Well they are!


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