This week in 1959: Automated Booking

Almost universally viewed as a frustrating curse of the modern age, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that back in the mists of time the automated telephone booking system seemed like a very good idea indeed.

Here, The Engineer reported on a computerised aircraft seat reservation system which has a strong claim to being the first system of its kind in the world.

Against a backdrop of massive and sudden growth, the airline industry of the late Fifties was struggling to keep up with the demand for tickets — with individual bookings often taking over an hour and involving several phone calls.

Clearly something had to give, and in an industry first, Trans-Canada airlines called on electronics manufacturer Ferranti to equip all its Canadian booking offices with computerised seat-booking devices known as ‘transactors’.

According to The Engineer, agents using the punch-card based system would mark cards with pencil and then insert them into the transactor which would read the marks and punch codes on to their edges. Cards were then fed into a reader, which would read them over phone lines at ‘high speed’ directly into the central booking computer — also designed by Ferranti.

‘In operating the device,’ wrote the magazine, ‘a pencil-marked card is inserted in the transactor by the clerk requesting a reservation. The central computer determines whether or not space is available on the flight in question and the information is returned to the transactor, causing it to punch a hole in the card, providing the answer to the reservation request.’

Following a £1m order for 350 transactors as well as the central computer, the system was installed by TCA in 1961. Reportedly able to process 10 transactions/sec, it was used for all TCA’s bookings until its replacement in 1970.