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When I was a child, my German teacher (in a non-German speaking country) told us that the typed form for the letter "ß" in use in mainframes at that time was "ss" instead of "sz" (the spoken form of that glyph as it's composed of a "ſ" and a "ȝ") because the SS was the largest customer of punched cards on IBM's Tabulating Machines outside the USA at that time.

When I told a German friend of mine (also working in IT), he said he never heard of this and tried proving me wrong, but there is no literature that either he nor I can find that (dis)proves the statement of my German teacher over ½ century ago...

Is there any literature out there that anyone here is aware of that (dis)proves this tale?

P.S. Asking here on https://retrocomputing.stackexchange.com/ and not asking over on https://history.stackexchange.com/ nor https://german.stackexchange.com/ as we're just 2 nerds working in the IT industry that are just looking for logic whereas on the other 2 sites, this might be a sensitive subject.

Note: No one ever said there were mainframes in the 1930s-40s: I was taught that the mainframes of the 60s used it because the tabulating machines of the 30s used it and the mainframes were the later version of the tabulating machines...

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    I’m voting to close this question because it needs to be moved to German.SE
    – Raffzahn
    Jul 31 at 18:00
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    Actually, this looks like just the sort of question they like to argue over at skeptics.stackexchange.com Aug 1 at 1:37
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    I think it's a fair question, but the OP's incorrect understanding can be very easily refuted by reference to a list of mainframe codepages (@Raffzahn, appended to your anser as a comment). Aug 1 at 8:27
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    @Raffzahn OP specifically says mainframes, and "over ½ century ago" can reasonably be interpreted as referring to the 1960s by which time there were definitely multiple character sets whether explicitly called codepages or not. I suggest masswerk.at/misc/card-punch-typography/editor.html is relevant, the picture of a German card at the end specifically omits ß although it has some characters with umlauts. Now tell me that the 029 wasn't around 50 years ago >:) Aug 1 at 11:56
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    Philosophical note: A statement without verifiable evidence never needs to be ”disproven”, because it hasn’t been “proven” in the first place. … Sadly, this is the prime rhetorical trick that stupid people play: When they don’t have arguments, they just claim to be right and that the other side would have to make counter-arguments to convince them. (Which smart people always fall for, since they are full of self-doubt thanks to Dunning-Kruger anyway.) Just to reject them, wait for the other side to trip up, point to it, and declare themselves the winner. … Please don’t play their game.
    – anon
    Aug 2 at 13:56

4 Answers 4

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The ß -> ss transcription goes back centuries (see e.g. the German Wikipedia entry on the ß), so: no.

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    One more thing I found out I was being lied to...
    – Fabby
    Aug 1 at 15:47
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    As a Danish person, I was taught that ß could be substituted with ss, which would have been about 20 years ago.
    – William
    Aug 2 at 12:51
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TL;DR: NO


When I was a child, my German teacher (in a non-German speaking country) told us that the typed form for the letter "ß" in use in mainframes at that time was "ss" instead of "sz" (the spoken form of that glyph as it's composed of a "ſ" and a "ȝ") because the SS was the largest customer of punched cards on IBM's Tabulating Machines outside the USA at that time.

Sorry, but that's as much crap as there can be. Well, not about the digraphs used instead of the ligature based letter, but the reasoning (*1).

To start with, ligatures of ss and sz look quite close and the modern ß glyph is in fact based on ss. Next, the usage of ss and sz in one and the same word nor the use of ß instead was consistent in German until way into the 19th century. It was people like the Brothers Grimm and their 30+ issue Deutsches Wörterbuch (German Dictionary) that helped to standardized spelling after the 1850s.

It was in fact their work that favoured the sz replacement for ß, mostly due the fact that it helped to distinguish words 'downgraded' from such already containing a double-s.

While the whole point of reverting already became an minor issue with the early typewriters (only such not made for German), it took center stage with the advent of teletypes in the 1920s. Here the all official use (e.g. army, post office) used sz for the very same reason. In common text ss was more common.

Thus, a common person will have Spass, while the army has Spasz :))

And that's essentially the state up to today ... well, plus a of course that piece of Nazi-history everyone waits for:

One of their improvements for 'purity' was to get rid of any German script, which of course means dropping all additional letters (like we used to have two different s - Greek and English BTW as well). At that point Hitler intervened and ordered the ß to be kept. Which ofc. was only a lower case one, so capitalisation stayed with SS for next to everything published - all like before.

Oh, and SSin case of Mainframes is a rather simple one: here were no mainframes before and during any time IBM might have wanted to please the Nazis at all. There were only punch card machines, which had no software that dictated the use or not use of certain letters - even less of lower case, which were not a thing back then.

Also, when mainframes became usable much later on, Basic charsets use was all about uppercase (English) Latin letters. And while lower case (and German Ä/Ö/Ü) were added by the time mainframes emerged, noone was really using them (*2). So neither ß and even less a back then not invented upper case variant was used - or replaced. After all, replacement would have meant that they can be entered in the first place. So SSis the only usage here ... of course unless it was about storing any processing of teletype messages :))

but there is no literature that either he nor I can find that (dis)proves the statement of my German teacher over ½ century ago...

Wiki got a whole page about. But you could as well listen to this fine English chap.

P.S. Asking here on https://retrocomputing.stackexchange.com/ and not asking over on https://history.stackexchange.com/ nor https://german.stackexchange.com/ as we're just 2 nerds working in the IT industry that are just looking for logic whereas on the other 2 sites, this might be a sensitive subject.

Well, it would be way better handled over there and I'll be voting for moving, as it is not IT related at all.


*1 - Including the part abut SS being the biggest customer. Germany may have been the single biggest IBM market outside the US. But then again Germany had a few large companies using punch cards. If you try you may come up with many names - including Ford or General Motors :))

*2 - Well, we for example only added lower case to mask text in the early 1980s. Lower case as input was't added until ca. 2000.

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    Good answer especially as it includes a link to the very clear video on the letterform.
    – davidbak
    Jul 31 at 22:19
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    Good answer to a good question, refuting the sort of ignorant crap which far too many adults repeat to gullible children. Aug 1 at 8:20
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    In any event, the list of codepages at web.archive.org/web/20120716195651/http://www-03.ibm.com/… (reached easily via Wikipedia) contains multiple examples supporting ß (which, as a Briton, I find quite quaint: and I applaud the Germans' relaxed attitude towards it when compared with their Western neighbours' insistence on perfection in all their fiddly little accents :-) Aug 1 at 8:31
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    @MarkMorganLloyd The question is about a time before code pages, in fact even before computers (ignoring the D11).
    – Raffzahn
    Aug 1 at 11:29
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    Wow, Raffzahn is usually well qualified to answer retro questions but an answer requiring both retro knowledge AND German language, even more so. And, as in the past, have to love a language that call the dictionary exactly what it is, a Wörterbuch (word book?) :-)
    – paxdiablo
    Aug 1 at 21:28
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As @raffzahn says, as much crap as can be. However, the story cited by the OP may contain a tiny morsel of truth. According to this article, IBM 'dealt directly with Holocaust organisers'

The paperback [IBM and the Holocaust by Edin Black] provides the first evidence that the company's dealings with the Nazis were controlled from its New York headquarters throughout the second world war.

Mr Black quotes Leon Krzemieniecki, the last surviving per son involved in the Polish administration of the rail transportation to Auschwitz and Treblinka, as saying that he "knew they were not German machines... The labels were in English...

So the claim that Big Blue had the Nazis as a customer might be real, even if the rest of the story is bogus.

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    This is fairly common knowledge, as is the fact that Watson was decorated by Hitler in 1937, a medal that he eventually returned. But IBM & Dehomag's German operations have little to do with ß = ss or sz. Aug 1 at 23:12
  • The claim isn't that the Nazis were a customer, but that they were the largest non-US customer.
    – Barmar
    Aug 2 at 14:17
  • The Nazis definitely used IBM tabulating machines through their German subsidiary Dehomag, the only somewhat controversial part is whether the subsidiary became fully independent after 1941 or was still in a business relationship and largely controlled by IBM in New York, violating laws against dealing with the enemy. The book makes a very strong (if extremely dry and hard to get through) case that it was.
    – llama
    Aug 2 at 14:36
  • @llama There are, in fact, two issues: as you say, trading with the enemy; there is also a matter of being an accessory to mass murder. Aug 2 at 19:07
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    @Evi1M4chine Well, I hope you feel better now you've got that off your chest;-) Aug 16 at 22:53
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You are likely correct about the SS (or at least the German government and all its services, shall we say) being the #1 customer for these tabulating machines. Appaling how IBM got away with their repossession of their German subsidiary (Dehomag) after WW2.

But the ß instead of ss is a normal German language option, as I know it at least.

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