Thursday, March 12, 2009

1960 CALR (Computer Assisted Legal Research)

I found this photograph in the book - or, as the introduction describes it, the “souvenir album” - produced for the 83rd Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association in 1960. The meeting that year was in Washington D.C. and this was one of the demonstrations in the exhibit area:

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The caption above reads:
ELECTRONIC LAW LIBRARY. That’s what the IBM Corporation called its data processing equipment put on display for convention visitors. When fed key words relating to a specific problem involving taxation of charitable hospital property, the machine produced in a few minutes the applicable statutes and case citations. Regional electronic law libraries available to the bar and judiciary are foreseen by some authorities as a development of the not too distant future.
And the book has this additional text:
ONE OF THE NOTABLE EXHIBITS at the Washington meeting was the first public demonstration of workable methods of searching statutes and case law with the aid of electronic computers. An IBM 650 computer demonstrated to several thousand curious lawyers how, in 26 minutes, it could complete the process of searching, selecting and printing the citations and texts of 10 relevant state health and hospital statutes. The particular search involved a tax problem of charitable hospitals. A manual state-by-state search would have taken several days.
Twenty-six minutes, you say! I guess that was impressive back then, though I think they exaggerate the “several days” it would have taken to manually research this issue in print resources for only ten states. I’ll have to use this in some of my classes and presentations to try to make the students appreciate what they have today. (The ABA meeting book is American Bar Association 83rd annual meeting, Washington, D.C., 1960 - looks like 39 other libraries have this, though the copy I’m looking at isn’t part of our collection, but was sitting around the office of one of our retired professors.)

I don’t think I knew that IBM had done early work on computer-assisted legal research. The text here seems to indicate that this was just a prototype so perhaps they never released a commercial product. Further research would confirm that but if they did try to market this to law firms, it predates LexisNexis’ claim that in 1966 its early “electronic data-search system became the first to retrieve full-text documents”. See LexisNexis, Company History.

And, looking closely at the picture, there doesn’t appear to be a keyboard on the IBM 650 - as, I think, was typical of these old computers (oh, and this model cost $500,000 back then, which is roughly $3,500,000 today). And, yes, that’s a punchcard reader to the right of the guy sitting down. My father worked on mainframes like this in the late 1960s and the punchcards were “written”/“typed”/”created”/whatever on separate units and then fed into the computer (I remember banging away on one of those when I was three or four and thinking it was cool how the machine made little rectangular holes in the cards.) I’ll have to delve into the literature sometime to see if there’s any mention of this system.

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