When it comes to modern technology, few things were more important in the early history of computers and automation than the punch card. Punch cards are forms of rigid paper or metal, usually rectangular in shape, that have holes punched into them in sequences that machines or computers can read or interact with. People and industries found many uses for punch cards, including the storage of patterns or data, and in the latter decades of their use, providing actual machine language code for programming computers. They were useful in industries such as manufacturing, entertainment, record keeping, and the military as well. Initially, because punch cards were primarily known only to industries, they were a cultural symbol of efficiency and enhanced productivity. When they were introduced to the public in the 20th century, however, some people welcomed the new technology, while others felt that punch cards represented a dehumanizing force in society. In addition, the public did not understand the nature of punch cards, particularly their lack of durability. Due to the frequent mishandling of the punch cards, manufacturers found it necessary to issue them with warnings, the most famous of which was the words “Do not fold, spindle or mutilate.”
The First Punch Cards
When the first punch cards came into existence, they inspired a culture of innovation in the business and scientific world. Primitive punch cards first appeared in the early 1700s when a French textile worker named Basile Bouchon developed a system in which punched paper directed looms to weave cloth in the way the user desired. A more fully-automated system was developed in the early 1800s by a French merchant named Joseph Jacquard and his Jacquard loom. This machine used punched cards made of pasteboard, which were the first to resemble typical punch cards. The Jacquard loom inspired other inventors such as Charles Babbage. Ada Lovelace used punch cards to develop the first computer program, which she wrote for Babbage’s Analytical Engine. The project in question was intended to automate the calculation of Bernoulli numbers.
In the late 19th century, an inventor named Herman Hollerith brought punch card technology closer to the mainstream when he refined punch cards to be used to store data so machines could read it. The Hollerith Machine, as he called his invention, was able to read and then tabulate data from punch cards. The first major project to make use of this new technology was the 1890 Census, in which the US Census Bureau was able to dramatically speed up its counting of the number of citizens in the country. He later went on to co-found the Computing Tabulating Recording Company, which later became known as the International Business Machines Incorporated, or IBM. The punch cards that Hollerith made were of the same size as the US One Dollar bill, so that they could fit into filing cabinets used by the US Treasury.
Widespread Use of Punch Cards
After the success of the 1890 Census, punch cards gained significantly in popularity among management circles in the business world. Insurance companies began using punch card technology, as did railroads and other industries. The US Army used them during World War I for tasks such as inventory control and managing medical records, and law enforcement also start using them to help in the fight against crime. In the 1930s the government began issuing public assistance checks in the form of punch cards, and people at large became aware of the technology. It was around this time that warnings regarding their use began to appear, because punch cards mutilated by folding, tearing or other damage, could jam up or confuse machines trying to read them.
Punch Cards in the Post-War Era
Punch cards became the subject of protests during the 1960s, as students began to see them as tools for the management of human beings by reducing them to simple numbers and figures. Students were introduced to punch cards by the fact that they needed them for identification and registration, and they were also specifically instructed to handle them with care. Eventually, as the Free Speech movement gained momentum, students saw technology as a force that was herding human beings into a culture of conformity and away from individuality, and punch cards became seen as part of that force. At the University of California, Berkeley, students would make a parody of the card handling warnings by wearing cards with signs like “don’t mutilate, fold or spindle me.” They committed pranks with punch cards, such as punching data into cards that caused machines to output obscene language, among other things. In other cases they tore, burned and mutilated cards as part of protests. A poster made for Earth Day in 1970 likened Earth to a punch card, giving readers the same now-classic warning for handling punch cards: “Do not fold, spindle or mutilate.” This message suggested that Earth should at least be treated as well as a punch card. The same phrase worked its way into a number of book titles as well. Improperly punched cards were used as subversive decorations and art. In Europe, punch cards lost even more respect when it came out that Nazi Germany used punch cards in their “Hollerith Departments” to keep records of concentration camp inmates and other victims of the Holocaust. Furthermore, it was discovered that IBM had sold machinery to Hitler during the years before World War II broke out.
In the modern day, punch cards are rarely seen anymore. Although some states still use them for tabulating votes, they have largely been replaced by magnetic and optical storage media, as well as electronic voting machines. Databases have taken over their role in record keeping, and modern textile manufacturing no longer uses punched cards. Still, references to punch cards persist in entertainment, such as in Matt Groening’s Futurama series.
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- Jacquard And His Punch Card Loom
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- Digital Aesthetics: Jacquard Loom
- Punched Cards: A Brief Illustrated Technical History
- Columbia University Computing History: IBM Punch Cards
- “Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate”: A Cultural History of the Punch Card (PDF)
- A Brief History of Computers
- Punch Card Democracy
- IBM: The Punched Card Tabulator
- Anatomy of a Hollerith Card
- Everything About Punch Cards
- Timeline: Digital Technology and Preservation
- US Census: The Hollerith Machine
- The Evolution of Punched-Card Systems (PDF)