The Surprisingly Long Life of the Punch Card

From 18th-century looms to hanging chads, this technology endured

1 min read
Photo: Randi Klett
Photo: Randi Klett

Paper punch cards, each representing a line of code or data, were how programmers got information into computers from the 1950s on. The concept, though, is a lot older. In 1884 Herman Hollerith borrowed the idea from the Jacquard loom and applied it to his U.S. census machines. Hollerith later founded a company that became IBM, and punch cards became known as IBM cards. Compilers, subroutines, and programs were coded into thick decks of cards, which were then fed through card readers like this ITT Cannon machine, featured in a March 1964 IEEE Spectrum ad. Pity the poor programmer who dropped her deck.

Decades after other forms of data storage came along, punch cards held on in highway toll collection, warehouse inventory, and payroll systems. Cardamation Co., the last U.S. company to make punch card equipment, quietly closed in 2012. The technology’s last moment in the public eye came during the 2000 U.S. presidential election, when incompletely punched ballot cards brought the “hanging chad” into the zeitgeist.

This article originally appeared in print as “Our Perforated Past.”

Part of a continuing series looking at the story of technology as told through advertisements.

About the Author

Robert Colburn is the research coordinator for the IEEE History Center. In this issue, he recounts the paper punch card’s surprising longevity. Colburn learned Fortran programming using punch cards as a student at St. Andrew’s School, in Middletown, Del. “I never dropped a compiler or subroutine deck”—which could take up several hundred cards—“but I saw a fellow student do it,” he recalls. “The cards went everywhere, and he sat on the floor with this awful expression on his face.”

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