The italian electric company, "ENEL" for short, used to have several
millions customers in the whole nation. Trading offices were literally
submerged by tons of paper documents (contracts, work orders, certificates,
In 1990 ENEL decided to adopt an optical document storage and retrieval system
to automatically deal with all those trading documents, and I was in charge for
developing the software.
The analisys pointed out, in short, that each document in the optical storage would have
been searched for by two inquiry keys: the so-called socket number
and the document type.
The biggest problem to face was how to avoid, or reduce to the minimum, the data
entry when scanning millions of documents of the past and those to come.
A number of solutions were invented and implemented, among which one very interesting
was the following: all the documents printed in ENEL from 1991 on would have been
provided with a sort of code that was intended to be optically recognized.
All the documents printed by ENEL those days were continuous module printed forms, filled
by means of dot matrix needle printers. And the only way to print a sort of code was using
the character "asterisk" as shown at the top of the following picture:
As you can see the asterisks are printed at the upper border of the printed form.
The leftmost and the rightmost asterisks were used as positioning marks. The space
between the positioning marks was ideally divided in 53 positions: the presence or the
absence of an asterisk in any position would have meant respectively a binary 1
and a binary 0.
The first 47 bits out of 53 were used to represent the socket number in binary, and
th next 6 bits were used to represent the document type.
Please note that the electric company just had to modify the mainframe procedures to print
the line of asterisks and nothing else: there was no need to change the existing dot matrix
printers (and those years they had a few thousands printers in the whole nation !).
The electric company from 1995 on started replacing the dot matrix needle printers with
laser printers, and this was how the laser printed documents were looking like:
The line of asterisks was recognized in a fraction of a second just after each document was
passed through the scanner. And to graphically display the recognition here is how the
recognized document was presented in real time on the PC screen:
Failure to recognize the asterisks happened only when stains, staples or hand writing were
interesting the recognition zone. The recognition statistics, anycase, showed 99.99%
successful recognition (checksum based statistics).
Since 1991 several trading offices were equipped with the optical document management systems
that made use of the Optical Mark Recognition described above. These were the districts served:
Gallarate, Busto Arsizio, Varese, Nola, Latina, Bari and Brindisi. The following is the photo of the
LAN servers in the biggest installation, Bari, that I completely renewed in 1999:
Since 2001 the italian electric company has been progressively divided (destroyed) in smaller companies
and sacrificed in the name of costs reduction, better service, and blah blah blah.