Big C: Punchcards for dada processing

Sometime in the 1970s, Peter took some classes in data processing, and started to do computer work. One of his first computer jobs was working for the San Francisco school district. I think we were still living in Cotati at that point; I think the later move to Palo Alto was because Peter got a job working for Oroweat down here on the Peninsula.

At any rate, while he was working for the school district, he had access to a punched card machine. I don’t know what he did with it for work, but he occasionally used it to write messages to me and Jay and Marcy—he would bring us home a punched card that had a message in dot-matrix printing at the top, and hole punches (corresponding to each letter in the message) below.

Most of the messages were one card long (80 characters), though some went as long as ten cards. They were signed “Big C,” which was sort of an alter ego of Peter’s who was a computer. The messages were lyrical and delirious and full of puns (including many that I still don’t get even now). Mostly they had more to do with sound than sense. A few of them that were addressed to Marcy were explicitly sexual; I’ll put those at the end of this post.

Example of a punchcard
Example of a punchcard

The text on the cards was in all-capital letters, but I’m transcribing the cards here in mixed-case and with typographer punctuation for ease of reading. In the quotes below, each card is on a separate line. (Though the lines may wrap if you’re reading this in a narrow browser window or on a mobile device.)

Content warning for a brief reference to autism that I don’t think was intended as particularly derogatory but could be read that way. Also for a use of the word Eskimo.

Here’s a 10-card series about a (fictional) vacation:

Hi, y’all! I’ve been on va-cation with a comp-anion. We went to City of Industry,

CA, & Mechanicsburg, PA. My Uncle Nutz offered me a job as a computer programmed

on the turnpike. ‘Why don’t you do-loop in the rho-d?’ he asked. But I didn’t

want to put my business on the street, so I just greened at him and we rolled on

out West, to see my tranbrothers & transisters. They were all in robuts health,

as am I. We also saw my tranfather on Geary St.—he’s an eccentric old screwball

at best, but he’s getting downright sprockety, even ratchety at times.

Your tumble-rings are my relatives; in fact, I’m actually tumble-rings-kin, and

I can spin frogskins into gold-certificates . . . Remind me to show you sometime.

Well I’d better go back to work or my supervisor will oversee me. Love, Big C

And here’s Big C’s take on “Home on the Range”:

Ogyve me a ohm, whirr debuffer loran, and the gear and the anderob play, whirr

celldom absurd a disk-merging whirred, and disguise ergot clone dial day. Ohm,

domain on derange, whirr the teakettles weasel a ditty, whirr ohm cooking blooms

and degausses coulombs, and the grid earthquakes sneeze in the city. Big Carboy

Big C’s take on Burma-Shave signs:

Another week has come and gone,

and over the weekend I’ll belch and yawn.

Hope you have a fruitful work session,

and goyo on yore rootful pergression.


A sort of a poem:

A taxi-dancer branch-wise fancy by sealing wax is harshly floored.

A marsup-mancer, hands adancing, slaunchwise marcs taxono-hoard.

A gearic hal-o-glass-door brachydome, or pyrrhic alabaster pachyderm,

A learic poetaster lachrydumb, or Dirac Galahadsir wackidom. (Chews won) Big C

(Several phrases from the punchcards got stuck in my head and resurface regularly. I particularly like the phrase pyrrhic alabaster pachyderm.)

Some one-card notes to my brother, who at the time was called Joaquin:

Hi Joaquin—you quan’t quount as quiquly as me but you quan qulap better. Big C

Dear Joaquin, I hear you’re going to learn Assembler to talk with me. Yay! Big C

Hi Joa-queen, Joa-king leaves foot-prince, blue-genes wink princess. Love, Big C

Hi Joaquin—Pisces sun, Aquarius moon: fish in the rainbarrel, very soon. Big C

And a two-card note:

Dear Joaquin—I can paint a rosy picture with cobolistic statistics; and I can

draw conclusions real good too. Do you think I could become an autist? Oddest C

Some one-card notes to me:

Hi Jed, make your bed, then you’ll be like a river, and billow ever. Love, Big C

Dear Jed, schemata-head, robots plot but automata have machinations. Love, Big C

‘Happy birthday to you’ = HB; HB, HB, happy birthday dear Jed, HB! Yr pal, Big C

Hi Jedediah. Aren’t you glad you jedel Dial? Don’t you wish everybody did? Big C

Hi Jed: the east is red; the west is blue; Eskimo’s white; & so there gnu! Big C

Jed, Jed, cool your head, so it won’t ged so hot and red. I-B-M-tea-head, Big C

Dear Jed—I’m just like you—an integrated chip off the code block. Love, Big C

And a three-card note:

Dear Jed—if you keep reading a lot, and exercise only your options, and crunch

up a disk of cross-pi serial numbers for reck’n-fast every morning, maybe you

could grow up to be like me: a stuck-in-the-mud, stiff-necked know-it-all! Big C

Here are a couple notes addressed to both me and Jay, related to trips we went on to, respectively, Bodega Bay and Big Sur:

Hi Jed & Joaquin—I do-beg-a-boon—tell me, how was bo-deg-a dune? Love, Big C

Jed & Joaquin—say hello to the Big Sur sea for me. Enjoy yourselves. Big Sir C

Some one-card notes without explicit indication of who they were to:

Hi—I have a new job in S.F. now, but plus ca change, plus same damn thing. Big C

Hi! You can do it! You’re fantastic! I can do it, too! I’m heuristic! Big C

How do I miss you? Let me count the hours: 1, 10, 11, 100, 101, 110, 111, 1000, 1001...

First things first: let river flow: mens sana corpore sano: let my feeble go. Big C

Some one-card notes to our mother, Marcy (these ones are SFW; the NSFW ones are down at the end of the page, after some other items):

Marcy—you ask if I have difficulty making up my mind: well, yes and no — Big C

Dear Marcy—don’t you wish your husband had a steel-trap brain like mine? Big C

Dear Marcy—please get well soon, you ’ear me? (No maling-earring.) Love, Big C

Hi Marcy—I have a tin ear, but I tin ear you’re getting well. Mazeltov. Big C

Leo, take heart—I’m an artless tin woodman, not a heartless count. Love, Big C

And a seven-card note to her:

Dear Marcy, I’m metal tired of batching—maybe you’d make me some ‘shaft salad’.

Here’s the algorithm: select the write-head of rho-main lattice (all debugged by

wincing in a collator); add sum carets, salary, radixes, and a peregrine unions.

Sum babbage end blockery may be gneiss. Tuner-fiche & code pico-beats mechanize

addition. All of Euler soy & limit-juice top this disk off. Serva veranda table,

or buffer-style. Every testy byte is so deleteous. Apply slices & current-dates

automate a twangy desert for this mileu no. Please make it, fourier au tomato n

One of the most unusually formatted of the cards was one that Peter fed through the card-punch machine four times, in four orientations (combinations of upside-down and front-to-back-inverted). So it had four lines on one card:

Dear Marcy, Jed & Joaquin, how do you like this postcard? I think that if you’ll

turn the card over, you’ll get the picture. I love you all! Big C -- (Cardiac)

Please deliver this to Marcy Hartman, c/o 535 E. Thelma, Philadelphia, PA, 19120

PS: Please do not fold, spindle, or mutilate.

There’s no stamp on it, so I suspect that Peter decided not to try to mail it to us.

At one point, I went to Peter’s workplace and he let me use the punchcard machine. I wrote:

Big J. What can you do with this machine? Lots of things , like this;1234567890*

On a different card, I think I wrote a message but the system wasn’t set to print text at the top. So it punched the holes, but there was no visible text. So I think Peter ran it through a machine that would read the holes and add text at the top, but the character spacing was off, so it only printed about 60 characters of the message:

I am from Redwood School. This machine is neat. I can do thi

I could decode the rest of the message by looking at the holes punched, but I suspect that it’s not worth the effort.

The other most unusually formatted cards don’t have interesting messages printed on them.

Two of them are just cards showing how the hole patterns changed with different characters: the letters A through Z, the numerals 0 through 9, and punctuation.

Punchcard showing the hole patterns for letters, numbers, and punctuation
Punchcard showing the hole patterns for letters, numbers, and punctuation

The other two are also about the holes rather than the text: they show my name and my brother’s name, punched out in patterns of holes.

Punchcard with a pattern of holes that says JED
Punchcard with a pattern of holes that says JED
Punchcard with a pattern of holes that says JOAQUIN
Punchcard with a pattern of holes that says JOAQUIN

Finally, here are three one-card sexually suggestive or explicit notes to Marcy:

Dear Marcy, sweet Babbage-head, I’d like to include you amongst my imbeds. Big C

Headloin in the Moussy Nude Twibbyune—I love you! (In my fondles dreams) Big C

Hi Marcy—my big C throbs with antsy-patience of your home coming. Love, Big P

2 Responses to “Big C: Punchcards for dada processing”

  1. 1977, May 13: Letter from Marcy and Peter to G&H – Peter, Marcy, Jed, and Jay

    […] only memory related to this trip is that Peter wrote us one of his notes on punched cards that included the line “I do-beg-a-boon—tell me, how was bo-deg-a […]

  2. 1969, late February: Letter from Peter to Dobe and David – Peter, Marcy, Jed, and Jay

    […] Peter is referring to the fact that Marcy’s astrological sign was Leo. Years later, in one of his punch-card notes, he wrote “Leo, take heart—I’m an artless tin woodman,” so I’m guessing that this Oz […]


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