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Tracing the History of the Computer - Punched Card (Hollerith Card)

 

The punch card (or "Hollerith" card) is a recording medium for holding information for use by automated data processing machines. Made of thin cardboard, the punch card represents information by the presence or absence of holes in predefined positions on the card. In the first generation of computing, from the 1920s into the 1950s, punch cards were the primary medium for data entry, storage and processing. Eventually, during the late 1970s to early 1980s, the punch card was replaced by magnetic storage. Today, punch cards are long obsolete outside of a few legacy systems and specialized applications.

Blank Punched Card

A typical blank punch card of the type used to store data

Origins

The punched card predates computers considerably. As early as 1725 Basile Bouchon used perforated paper loop in a loom to establish the pattern to be reproduced on cloth, and in 1726 his co-worker Jean-Baptiste Falcon improved on his design by using perforated paper cards attached to one another, which made it easier to change the program quickly. The Bouchon-Falcon loom was semi-automatic and required manual feed of the program. Joseph Jacquard used punched cards in 1801 as a control device for the more automatic Jacquard looms, which met with great success.

Punch card system of a music machine

Punch card system of a music machine. Also referred to as Book music, a one stop European medium for organs

Charles Babbage, who originated the idea of a programmable computer, adopted Jacquard's system of punched cards to control the sequence of computations in the design for his analytical engine in 1837. Such cards were used as an input method for the primitive calculating machines of the late 19th century. The version by Herman Hollerith, patented on June 8, 1887 and used with mechanical tabulating machines in the 1890 U.S. Census, was a piece of cardboard about 90 mm by 215 mm, with round holes. This was the same size as the dollar bill of the time, so that storage cabinets designed for money could be used for his cards. The early applications of punched cards all used specifically-designed card layouts. It wasn't until around 1928 that punched cards and machines were made "general purpose". In that year, punched cards were made a standard size, exactly 7-3/8 inch by 3-1/4 inch (187.325 by 82.55 mm), dimensions almost identical to the large-sized notes used as U.S. currency until 1929.

     

To compensate for the cyclical nature of the Census Bureau's demand for his machines, Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company (1896) which was one of three companies that merged to form IBM in 1911.

The IBM 80-column punching format, with rectangular holes, eventually won out over the UNIVAC 90-character format, which used 45 columns (2 characters in each) of 12 round holes. IBM (Hollerith) punched cards are made of smooth stock, .007 of an inch (0.178 mm) thick. There are about 143 cards to the inch thickness; a group of such cards is called a deck. Punch cards were widely known as just IBM cards.

Functional details

The method is quite simple: On a piece of light-weight cardboard, successive positions either have a hole punched through them or are left intact. The rectangular bits of paper punched out are called chads or chips (in IBM usage). Thus, each punch location on the card represents a single binary digit (or "bit"). Each column on the card contained several punch positions (multiple bits).
A reproducing punch

A reproducing punch, like this one from IBM, could make exact copies of a deck of cards.

IBM punch card format

The IBM card format, which became standard, held 80 columns of 12 punch locations each, representing 80 characters. Originally only numeric information was coded with 1 or 2 punches per column: digits (digit[0-9]) and signs (zone[12,11] - sometimes overpunching the Least Significant Digit). Later, codes were introduced for upper-case letters and special characters. A column with 2 punches (zone[12,11,0] + digit[1-9]) was a letter; 3 punches (zone[12,11,0] + digit[2-4] + 8) was a special character. The introduction of EBCDIC in 1964 allowed columns with as many as 6 punches (zones[12,11,0,8,9] + digit[1-7]). The punch cards were 7 and 3/8 inches long by 3 and 1/4 inches high and were 0.007 inch thick with one of the upper corners cut at an angle.

Corner cut

A major reason for the corner cut was so the punch card would not be inserted backwards or upside down. Operators loading card decks would quickly recognize an inverted card. Many computer installations used cards with the opposite corner cut (sometimes no corner cut) as "job separators", so that an operator could stack several job decks in the card reader at the same time and be able to quickly separate the decks manually when he removed them from the stacker. These cards (e.g., a JCL command to start a new job) were prepunched in large quantities in advance. This was especially useful when the main computer did not read the cards directly, but instead read their images from magnetic tape that was prepared offline by card to tape converters or smaller computers such as the IBM 1401.

Pre-printed cards

IBM 029 keypunch for manual entry of data

IBM 029 keypunch for manual entry of data

It was common to have cards for particular applications pre-printed, with fields marked by vertical lines. Each programming language of the era had a special card form. Punch cards were used as legal documents, such as U.S. Government checks and savings bonds. For much of the 20th century IBM cards had the warning "Do not fold, spindle or mutilate," printed at one end, and that became something of a motto for the post-World War II era, though many people had no idea what spindle meant.

Key punches

Data was entered on a machine called a keypunch, which was like a large, very noisy typewriter. Often the text was also printed at the top of the card, allowing humans to read the text as well. This was done using a machine called an interpreter. Later model keypunches could do this as well. Multi-character data, such as words or large numbers, was stored in adjacent card columns known as fields. For applications in which accuracy was critical, the practice was to have two different operators key the same data, with the second using a card-verifier instead of a card-punch. Verified cards would be marked with a rounded notch on the right end. Failed cards would be replaced by a key punch operator. There was a great demand for key-punch operators, usually women, who worked full-time on key punch and verifier machines.

Data processing

Electromechanical equipment (called unit record equipment) for punching, sorting, tabulating and printing the cards was manufactured. These machines allowed sophisticated data processing tasks to be accomplished long before computers were invented. The card readers used an electrical (metal brush) or, later, optical sensor to detect which positions on the card contained a hole. They had high-speed mechanical feeders to process around one hundred cards per minute. All processing was done with electromechanical counters and relays. The machines were programmed using wire patch panels.

Other formats

A System 3 punch card

A System 3 punch card

Other coding schemes, sizes of card, and hole shapes were tried at various times. Mark sense cards had printed ovals that humans would fill in with a pencil. Specialized card punches could detect these marks and punch the corresponding information into the card. There were also needle cards with all the punch positions perforated so data could be punched out manually, one hole at a time, with a device like a blunt pin with its wire bent into a finger-ring on the other end. In the early 1970s, IBM introduced a new, smaller, round-hole, 96-column card format along with the IBM System 3 computer.

Agway once issued debit cards that were punched instead of magnetically encoded.

Aperture cards are a specialized use of punch cards for storing "blueprints". A drawing is photographed onto 35 mm film and the image is mounted in a window on the right half of the punch card. Information about the drawing, e.g. the drawing number, is punched in the left half.

IBM punch cards could be used with early computers in a binary mode where every column (or row) was treated as a simple bitfield, and every combination of holes was permitted . In this binary mode, cards could be made in which every possible punch position had a hole: these were called "lace cards." For example, the IBM 700/7000 series scientific computers treated every row as two 36-bit words, usually in columns 1-72, ignoring the last 8 columns (but this was programmable using a plugboard in the card reader and punch to select the 72 columns used). Other computers, like the IBM 1130, used every possible hole.

Advantages

In its earliest uses, the punch card was not just a data recording medium, but a controlling element of the data processing operation. Punch cards that held processing instructions were called control cards. Electrical pulses produced when the read brushes passed through holes punched in the cards directly triggered electro-mechanical counters, relays, and solenoids. Cards were inexpensive and provided a permanent record of each transaction. Large organizations had warehouses filled with punch card records.

One reason punch cards persisted into the early computer age was that an expensive computer was not required to encode information onto the cards. When the time came to transfer punch card information into the computer, the process could occur at very high speed, either by the computer itself or by a separate, smaller computer (e.g. an IBM 1401) that read the cards and wrote the data onto magnetic tapes or, later, on removable hard disks, that could then be mounted on the larger computer, thus making best use of expensive mainframe computer time.

Obsolescence

Punched-card systems fell out of favour in the mid to late 1970s, as disk storage became cost effective, and affordable interactive terminals meant that users could edit their work with the computer directly rather than requiring the intermediate step of the punched cards.

However, their influence lives on through many standard conventions and file formats. The terminals that replaced the punched cards displayed 80 columns of text, for compatibility with existing software. Many programs still operate on the convention of 80 text columns, although strict adherence to that is fading as newer systems employ graphical user interfaces with variable-width type fonts.

Dimpled and hanging chads

One term for the punched card area which is removed during a punch is chad, although in IBM product nomenclature the term chip was invariably used.

Punch card based voting systems, the Votomatic system in particular, use special cards where each possible hole was pre scored, allowing perforations to be made by the voter pressing a stylus through a guide in the voting machine. These pre-perforated cards are called Port-A-Punch cards, a type introduced by IBM in 1958. One notorious problem with this system is the incomplete punch; this can lead to a smaller hole than expected, or to a mere slit on the card, or to a mere dimple on the card. Thus a chad which is still attached to the card is a hanging chad. This technical problem was claimed by the Democratic Party to have influenced the 2000 U.S. presidential election in the state of Florida; critics claimed that punch card voting machines were primarily used in Democratic areas and that hundred of ballots were not read properly or disqualified due to incomplete punches, which allegedly tipped the vote in favour of George W. Bush over Al Gore.

Other punch card voting systems use a metal hole-punch mechanism that does not suffer nearly as much from this fault, although most states have eliminated punch card voting systems of all types after the 2000 Florida experience.

Resources

History of Computers

History of Programming Languages

Charles Babbage

Basile Bouchon

Jean-Baptiste Falcon

Joseph Marie Jacquard

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punched_cards

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