Punched Drunk: Alcohol, Surveillance and the LCBO, 1927-1975

LCBO Surveillance Technologies

Punch Cards, IBM & Statistical Analysis


Tracking Purchasers with IBM Punch Cards 1944-1962

In 1944, the LCBO changed exclusively to IBM Hollerith machines to record purchases, tabulate consumption, sort individual permittees and keep a record of all permit users (Annual Report of the LCBO 1944-1945, 1946). Although this change would not have been significant for auditors and statisticians who were already using similar tabulation technologies, the Board’s permit department took the opportunity to drastically change their record keeping and classification practices.

Starting in 1944 the Board experimented with punch cards as a means of keeping tabs on its permit holders. The new Form 83700 contained the permittee’s address, permit number, the store and the vendor from whom the permit was purchased, but most importantly, it included a punched section for the individual’s name. This punched section would allow for simple tabulation of individuals as well as for the expedient generation of lists - the LCBO’s most valuable tool in controlling liquor sales.

Extension application

In February 1948, the Board adopted its application of the punch card system to liquor permits province wide and explained to its vendors:

You will note that the permit copy in the new permits is an International Business Machine Card (form – I.B.M. 60652). These I.B.M. Cards, on return to the Permit Department, Head Office, will be processed in high speed machines, and is therefore necessary that care be taken in their handling in the store, as a guard against warping, bending or surface indentation or perforation (LCBO Circular 3940, 1948).

Handling the new cards required great care and the Board instructed its vendors to:

please note that - (a) - Cards must not be pinned, clipped, stapled or spike filed. (b) - Cards must be kept flat and free from damaged edges. (c) - Cards must not be folded, except if it is found that upon the customer signing the permit card has a tendency to slip out of place. The protruding part of the card may be folded under the cover of the permit at the crease in the card. (On examination of this card this crease will be seen). If such action is found necessary the card must be straightened out after it has been removed from the permit. (d) - Cards must not be secured with a rubber bands or string unless carefully wrapped first in heavy paper. (e) - Very Important. Storage space for permits should be carefully selected where they will be free from excessive heat and moisture. This is to protect the cards (LCBO Circular 3940, 1948).

Cards were filled in by local vendors, though the physical punching of them was conducted by IBM, as the Board explained:

When Copies of permits (new I.B.M. cards) are received at this office with your daily report of permit sales, they will be checked for accounting purposes, and then be sent to the service bureau of the International Business Machines to be punched, and returned for machine sorting. It will be seen that if your copies are not clear and readable, the company will complain to the Board and the success of our new system will be jeopardised (LCBO Circular 3940, 1948).

The Board used IBM punch cards, like the one shown above, to play the role of the “second copies” held at Head Office. These secondary permits provided information that allowed the Board to keep tabs on problem users so that previous classifications (such as cancellations and interdictions) and restrictions would be retained by permittees should they attempt to receive a new permit, as well as enabling the LCBO to ensure that no permit holder could purchase additional permits. The Permit Department of the LCBO was quite adamant about maintaining accurate records concerning the second copies, as they enabled Head Office oversight of permit issuing and the statistical analysis of classified individuals (LCBO Circular 226, LCBO Circular 873, LCBO Circular 1439, LCBO Circular 1442, LCBO Circular 1534, LCBO Circular 1636, LCBO Circular 3442, LCBO Circular 3940, 1927-1948, and LCBO Form L-44).

By 1948 the Board was spending just under $100,000 on permits in implementing its new IBM technology, and in 1952 began reporting the costs of renting IBM machinery independently (Annual Report of the LCBO 1944-1945, 1946; Annual Report of the LCBO 1951-1952, 1953). Although IBM argued that its automation processes greatly expedited the tabulation and sorting processes, the task of sorting the cards of all of the LCBO’s permit holders would still have remained a monumental task. Given the data presented in IBM’s manuals regarding sorting times, LCBO purchase data, and the LCBO’s Form IBM 83700, the sorting of all permit holder’s second copies into alphabetical order in the 1948-1949 year would have required approximately 1,397 machine hours.

973,308 Individual Permit holders (1948-1949) x 28 columns in name fields x 2 runs to sort
alphabetic information / 650 cards per minute = 83,854.2 minutes (1,397.57 hours or just under
59 days). Formula presented in IBM Punch Card Data Processing Principles, Section 2: The IBM
Sorter, 1961b: 9, permit holder data drawn from Annual Report of the LCBO 1948-1949, 1950,
card field information drawn from LCBO Form IBM 83700.

The increased use of tabulation machines and the vast operational costs that the LCBO incurred, show the central role and scope of these technologies within the organization. By 1970, the Board had paid IBM over $764,000 for equipment rental, $1,083,00 in tabulation costs, $1,061,000 in permit costs, $190,000 for computerization – making a grand total of $3,099,300 dollars spent on these surveillance technologies over 26 years (Annual Reports of the LCBO 1944-1970). The role of IBM in the development of sorting and tabulating technologies at the LCBO after 1944 was substantial – even leading the LCBO to refer to its tabulation employees as the “I.B.M. Department” (LCBO Circular S-364, 1959). However, it was not only IBM technology that was introduced to the LCBO. Executive personnel were soon also sourced from Big Blue. Harry Sheppard became chief commissioner of the LCBO in 1963 after stepping down from his position as Chairman of the Board of IBM Canada. Sheppard immediately initiated a program of electronic digitization of Head Office records upon his appointment, trading up from punch cards to Personal Computers (Annual Report of the LCBO 1964-1965, 1966). The Board reported in 1968 that “the conversion program to electronic data processing has recently been completed at Head Office” and that “the use of electronic equipment has contributed to improved efficiency in all accounting and statistical factions of the Board” (Annual Report of the LCBO 1967-1968, 1969: 13).

After the perfusion of IBM technology throughout the LCBO, statistical sorting became central to the identification and investigation of risk populations as well as the key technology used for the generation of the Board’s most powerful pre-electronic social control tool – the “drunk” list.

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