HISTORY OF CARDS AND PAPER TAPE
IN ADVANCED TECHNOLOGY
El Penski, January 2013

In the middle decades of the 20th Century, paper card and tape processing had reached a peak of usage for all kinds’ of information storage, retrieval, manipulation, calculation, manufacturing, and printing. They have almost vanished now and become a very strange technology foreign to most young adults. It seems weird in retrospect even to this old physical chemist, who was deeply submerged, for over a decade in cards and paper tapes when cards and paper tapes were at their pinnacle of their use by advanced technology, science, commerce, telegraphy, accounting, manufacturing, and many other fields. I have a hard time imagining how quickly it was forgotten, how strange it seems now, and how many decades of valuable data was trapped and lost in the old systems.

It all started when Basile Bouchon, a French textile worker, invented a way to control a loom with a perforated paper tape in 1725. Later in 1801, Joseph Marie Jacquard, in England, demonstrated the Jacquard loom that was mechanically controlled by cards for weaving very complex patterns such as brocade, damask and matelassé. The first Jacquard loom that I examined in 1953 was controlled by hundreds of foot long wooden cards with round holes. Some people believe this technology, without the use of electricity, was the beginning of modern computing.

Edge-notched cards, invented in 1896, were a manual low cost information storage and search technology and used for specialized data storage and cataloging uses for much of the 20th century. Most of cards were 5 inch by 8 inch with one or two layers of holes punched along all four edges to facilitate searches. The center of the card might be typed data, photographs, or pre-printed forms.

Before the U.S. 1890 Census, it was estimated that with a rapidly growing population the census would take roughly 13 years to finish. This was unacceptable. Thus, Herman Hollerith, of the United States Census Bureau, developed the tabulating machine, which was an electromechanical machine designed to assist in processing the information used for the U.S. 1890 Census. It led to a class of machines, known as “unit record equipment,” the data processing industry and to scientific and office computers.


Freed, Les, The History of Computers, ZD Press, Emeryville, California.
Brown, John A., Computers & Automation, ARCO Pub. Co., New York, NY, 1968.

The first automatic feed tabulator, operating at 150 cards per minute, was developed in 1906. The first printing tabulator was developed in 1920. "The term Super Computing was first used by the New York World newspaper in 1931 to refer to a large custom-built tabulator that IBM made for Columbia University."* These tabulating and later machines were programmed by hard wiring boards.


* Eames, Charles; Eames, Ray, A Computer Perspective, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, p. 95, 1973. and The Columbia Difference Tabulator - 1931, http://www.columbia.edu/cu/computinghistory/packard.html, accessed January 2013.


Format of IBM 7090 Card
Format of IBM 7090 Card

Format of IBM 360 Card
Format of IBM 360 Card



ASCII developed from telegraphic codes as a seven-bit telegraph printer code promoted by Bell Data Services of American Telephone and Telegraph Company. Work on the ASCII standard originated on October 6, 1960 from the meeting of the American Standards Association. The first version of the standard was issued during 1963.

Format of Paper Tape
Format of Paper Tape


Format of ASCII Code
Format of ASCII Code

Card tabulating machines were the forerunner of the office computer. Hollerith’s invention, the punch card tabulating machines, became the forerunner of a company that developed into International Business Machine (IBM). They were used for accounting, time-keeping, and payroll and they were used for all of the 20th century until the 1980s with boards which were like telephone pluggable switchboards. Changing boards changed programs like from calculating and printing pay checks to scientific calculations. The data was entered with punched cards and outputted with printers or card punches, maybe, to be processed by other programs. During WWII, when the electronic programs were changed without changes in the wiring, the modern computer with electronic memory was born and everybody forgot about rewiring, cards and paper tape for memory and for input. All kinds of cards existed from round cards with rectangular holes to rectangular cards with round holes. Most of the various cards have been totally forgotten, but card files and manual systems are still found in libraries, but computer search engines are much more effective, compact, and faster.

I used computers in and around Washington, D.C. at several Government Agencies in the 1960s and 1970s. The only keypunch operators, that I saw, were women with a big backlog of punching to do. As a result, I did my own keypunching to get my work done in half an hour rather getting the keypunching done in days or weeks by the women. A number of women at different agencies told me that "Real men don't do keypunching," and since I was one of the first chemists to use computers, my bosses told me that "Chemists don't use computers." I did not stop, but coworker Don Bowie got our own keypunch and acquired a series of computer devices that I used for physical chemistry. I had no doubt in my manhood; and eventually when my bosses saw the results from computers, they understood. Also, I got to know the managers of a few big computer facilities, and they called me for consulting on their own facilities. In a few years, I provided the benchmarks for buying their super-computers. By the 1980s, paper tape and cards were supplanted. Some huge, valuable data bases and great software were left isolated on cards or paper tape. At some few moments, I have wondered if new technology is progression or retrogression.

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