The IBM 1401 Hebrew Letter Key

In the early 1960's the popular computer in Israel was the IBM 1401. It used the BCD code - Binary Coded Decimal, precursor of the Extended Binary Coded Decimal Interchange Code (EBCDIC) - which was a 6 bit code. Hebrew was coded instead of English, but since Hebrew has 27 letters (actually 22 letters and 5 final forms), and English only 26, Alef was coded as Ampersand (&). Unfortunately, some important applications attached special meaning to the Ampersand, so Alef was also coded as @, nicknamed Shtrudel, which means apple pie in Yiddish.

Similar codes were used on other computers at the time. This precedes the "Old Code", and is known in Israel as "Ancient Code" or "Chinese". Even today, much of the data stored on mainframes still uses this code internally.


IBM Israel had prepared this small plastic card, which helped programmers type Hebrew text in their code.

The bits are named 1, 2, 4, 8, A and B. The 80 column punched card code is indicated in red. The comment at the bottom explains that ? prints as & or Alef, and ! as -.

IBM 1401 Hebrew Letter Key


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1999 Jonathan Rosenne. All rights reserved. Last modified March 7, 1999.

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