Long before computers existed, businesses used electromechanical accounting machines for data processing. These one-ton accounting machines were "programmed" through wiring on a plugboard control panel, allowing them to generate complex business reports from records stored on punched cards. Even though they lacked electronics and used spinning mechanical wheels to add up data, these machines could process more than two cards a second.
This plugboard for an IBM 403 implements tax deduction computation. Board courtesy of Carl Claunch.
In honor of April 151, I examine a plugboard that was used for tax preparation in the 1950s9 and explain the forgotten art of plugboard programming, showing how a tangle of wiring implemented a data processing algorithm. By mounting the plugboard on an accounting machine, a particular data processing task could be performed. Although the plugboard looks like spaghetti code made physical, tracing out the connections shows its function: it computed deductions by summing records across multiple fields, printed a report with subtotals and totals, and punched a smaller card deck with the subtotals.