Retrotechtacular: Once Upon A Punched Card


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.

27 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Once Upon A Punched Card

  1. Ahh the joy of the Dup key, the sweet anticipation of the operator loading (will the deck be dropped), the adrenalin rush of reassembling the deck on the lunch room tables in a race against deadline, the sheer joy of a first time clean run. Those were the days!

      1. F*ck. And no pre-programmed error/warning messages; none of that weak sh*t. Such mad respect for the early computer pioneers. Now we have…arduino; and can create so much trivially.

    1. Oh geez. There were few things as frustrating as dropping the deck. I also remember seeing programs that went into an infinite loop with a “page eject” command. Those huge noisy printers could eject 3 sheets per second, and the operator was not going to be happy with you.

    2. My dad said someone at his school dropped a deck of cards right before a test…felt bad for laughing as I can’t imagine the sheer terror but surely that person could laugh about it later…or PTSD :/

    1. You can say the same from the companies that made rifles for the war, cars for the war, anything for the war.
      IBM was not called by the Nazis asking for “a machine to help catalog Jews,” but for a machine to help with the census. IBM was not responsible for what happened. Or do you think that Nazis would not be able to be such a disgrace to the world history without IBM?

      1. Im sorry… which US companies made cars/rifles for the reich??

        The book makes a well researched case that IBM knew what the machines were being used for, and the “camps” wouldnt have been able to “process” nearly as many as they did without the machines. . Read the book yourself; its a “easy” read for such a somber subject.

        1. No need to be sorry. A quick google will find-
          Ford Motor Company of Germany produced vehicles for the german war effort..
          Also the Douglas DC-3 was used by Germany and Japan as well. It was the only aircraft to be used by all participants.

  2. well,
    last month I had to provide a program on my compamny’s mainframe with some new parameters … and the manual literaly told me to punch the forth, fifth and tenth hole to create a neccessary control character :-/

  3. As a kid I remember my Dad taking me to an open house at either Boeing/Mcdonnell Douglas where part of the tour was “filling out” a punched card with your info, then it was taken to a huge computer in the next room (behind glass) where the card was fed in and long personalized dot-matrix ASCII banner was printed out the other end of the machine. Thinking back now it must have been fairly expensive to do for each kid.

  4. This article reminds me of a job I was on gutting an AT&T building where we had to drag an abandoned punch card reader out of the place. That machine was so big, and heavy that AT&T was at a loss for how to remove it for decades, so their solution was to simply wall it off. When we ripped down a sheet rock wall there it was.

    It took an awful lot of big strong men swearing profusely to get that thing gone. We did it though. In the heat of the moment I didn’t get to examine it too closely, time is money on a job, but what I saw of it was absolutely amazing. Cursory inspection suggested it was a purely mechanical device. I saw no ICs, tubes, or anything that I would call an electronic component. Just some copper contacts.

    If someone told me today that it had to be hand cranked I’d tend to believe it. Although I saw no evidence of a crank on it while I was dragging it. What I did see was a mind boggling array of tiny little arms, and levers inside of it. This thing was like a solid mass composed entirely of these little arms, and levers.

    I’m doing a web search right now looking for something resembling it and nothing I’m seeing even comes close to this behemoth as I remember it. This thing was like the big daddy of punch card readers.

    It probably belonged in a museum, or on a pedestal as the 10th wonder of the world, or something, but we hauled it into a scrap metal dumpster.

    1. “If someone told me today that it had to be hand cranked I’d tend to believe it. Although I saw no evidence of a crank on it while I was dragging it. What I did see was a mind boggling array of tiny little arms, and levers inside of it. This thing was like a solid mass composed entirely of these little arms, and levers.”

      You’re not far off. They were powered by motors, a 360 degree rotation of the main shaft corresponded to a full clock cycle. Think of a rotating disk, with concentric conducting circles (not necessarily complete circles, but concentric tracks). Brushes ride on the tracks and make connections for portions of the main shaft rotation. Phased clocks, if you will. Cards get sucked in, and the rows on the card (starting at the 9 edge, of course!) correspond to sequential time slots of the main shaft cycle – first time slot is the 9 row, second is the 8-row, etc. 80 brushes, one for each column in the card. Lots and lots of wire telephone-type relays. LOTS of relays.

  5. In high school (1980’s) we used punch cards for RPG II and COBOL. I was one of the lucky operators of the system. Cleaning these beasts had to account for my number one job. Those cast off units they gave my high school needed alignment badly….but it pre-dated my skills to do that, so off with the thin metal knife I went to clear a jam.

    Oh, and ditto on the syntax error problem. You’d run a job 3 times finding a different misspelling each run. Couldn’t type “ENVIRONMENT VARIABLE” the same way every time if you paid me….

  6. When I was in the Boy Scouts, we collected paper to recycle for troop spending money.
    We had literally TONS of these cards stacked wall to wall in out little troop hut. Got some fairly good money for them, quality stuff.

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