austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

I've got something I can laugh about

One more surprise for this week comes from Wikipedia's ``Filmography'' section on astoundingly funny man Bob Newhart: ``Bob also appeared in a 'Short' for IBM spoofing Herman Hollerith's idea to record the 1890 census figures on punched cards.'' Let's take a paragraph break to consider that concept.

I can believe such a thing might have existed: IBM, despite its intimidating reputation, has a sense of humor or else we would never have had the PC Junior. And if you wanted to talk about notable moments in IBM history then Herman Hollerith and the 1890 census are natural things to think of if you think that deeply about IBM's history. How someone made the conceptual leap to having Bob Newhart involved in the production I don't know, but it seems like it would be very hard to start from there and have it be anything other than Newhart playing the guy at the Census Office talking with Hollerith on the phone about how this punch-card concept would work.

And some research turns out that I appear to be basically right: the British Film Institute database (and why not the British Film Institute?) lists it as a 1970 production and describes it as ``Lighthearted film featuring Bob Newhart, who plays the role of a product evaluator for a firm of merchandising experts, in the late 19th century, who receives a telephone call from Herman Hollerith attempting to describe his new invention -- the punched card method of accounting''. (Another reference claims that Newhart played a patent office clerk evaluating the new system, but it's obviously of that pattern, and modelled on Sir Walter Raleigh's introduction of tobacco.)

I can find a healthy number of people who remember it fondly, and it was even mentioned in a Talk of the Nation interview with Newhart (Joyce in Rochester wondered about it): Newhart said he did ``quite a few things for IBM''. Despite a couple hundred references on the web, the film appears to be missing and there's no transcription available, which might make it a lost treasure of the ages, at least for people nerdly in just the right ways. I can dimly imagine how the sketch might have gone, but how would it really go? The latest reference I've been able to find says that ``you could get it from IBM Film Rentals in 1985, but since then, nothing.'' Anyone up for an expedition to 1985?

Trivia: The astronomer Johann Hieronymus Schröter observed, first on 24 February 1792, what he believed to be evidence of a lunar atmosphere. Source: Planets and Perception, William Sheehan.

Currently Reading: Energy Forms: Allegory and Science in the Era of Classical Thermodynamics, Bruce Clarke.


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