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.