Daily Tedium

Doing It For Erma

An 1956 book about the early history of automation finally hits digital shelves, thanks to a friend of mine. And its appearance is deliciously ironic.

By Ernie Smith

Earlier this year, I got incredibly fascinated by a book. One that had fallen off of store shelves nearly 60 years ago. The problem was, I had no way of getting hold of that book without actually going to the trouble of buying it.

Perhaps that was a little annoying, but David O. Woodbury’s 1956 work Let Erma Do It, which is titled after one of the first automated check-sorting systems ever produced, was a worthy book at the front end of the era of automation that has brought us so many things since. It’s the rare early view on a trend that, retrospectively, changed everything.

One of my great frustrations about this book was that it couldn’t be read online, despite its status as an early barometer of what's since become an important trend.

Let Erma Do It

I have a used copy of the book, though I think that it deserves more than just my eyes looking at it. (Not a lot of eyes have looked at this book, based on my relatively pristine copy, which has a library card suggesting it hadn’t been checked out from the Missouri library from where it was purchased in more than 50 years, prior to my picking it up.)


Fortunately for all of us, my pal Marcin Wichary decided now was a great time to put the book on the shelves of the Internet Archive, in an easy-to-read, easy-to-scan PDF format. No hunting through old libraries or scouring Amazon to find this book anymore.

I can’t thank Wichary enough for doing this; he says it’s a Christmas gift, though what’s great about it is that he’s paying it forward to everyone, by putting knowledge in one of our best online repositories of knowledge. (I should point out that Wichary has a book about keyboards called Shift Happens well in the works. I expect strong returns from the book, and not just because it’s a good pun.)

I can’t help to appreciate, though, of the irony of Marcin’s task. Here’s a book about the value of automation, which had to be painstakingly added, page by page, to a PDF for internet consumption. Back in July, I talked with Kevin Savetz, who is heading a project to preserve the junk mail of early digital icon Ted Nelson on the Internet Archive, and I know he’s doing all of that manually, perhaps with some of the benefits of OCR.

The Internet Archive has really impressive scanners available, but even for its most advanced tasks, it still relies on the human hand.

As far as we’ve gotten since 1956, there are still tons of tasks which are going to be a pain in the ass to do, no matter how you slice it.

Anyway, I hope that you use this opportunity to take a look at what David O. Woodbury had to say about automation. Now you have one less excuse. Thanks again, Marcin.

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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