Retrotechtacular: Once Upon A Punched Card

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Ah, the heady days of the early 60s, where companies gave their salesmen exquisitely produced documentaries, filled with incidental music written by the best composers of the era, and a voice actor that is so unabashedly ordinary you would swear you’ve heard him a hundred times before. It’s a lot better than any PowerPoint presentation anyone could come up, and lucky for us, these 16mm films are preserved on YouTube for everyone to enjoy. This one was sent out to IBM sales reps pushing a strange technology called a ‘punched card’, a system so efficient it will save your company tens of thousands of dollars in just a few short years.

Like most explanations of what a punched card does, this IBM documercial begins with the history of the Jacquard loom that used punched cards for storing patterns for textile weaving. In a rare bit of historical context befitting IBM, this film also covers the 1880 US census, an important part in the evolution of punched cards being used not as instructions for a loom, but data that could be tabulated and calculated.

The United States takes a census every ten years. The tenth census of 1880 took so long to compile into the data – seven years – it was feared the next census of 1890 wouldn’t be complete until the turn of the century. This problem was solved by [Herman Hollerith] and his system of encoding census data onto punched cards for tabulation. [Hollerith] would later go on to found the Tabulating Machine Company that would later merge with two other companies to form IBM. Isn’t it great that IBM chose to include that little nugget in their film.

As a point of interest, the film does contain a short pitch for IBM punched card writers, sorters, and calculators – the backbone of IBM’s medium to large size business sales. At the time this film was produced (1964) IBM was ready to announce the System/360, what would become the de facto mainframe for businesses of all sizes.  Yes, the /360 also used punched cards, but we wonder how many angry phone calls the sales reps received months after showing this film.

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