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What are Punch Cards?

By Dan Blacharski
Updated: May 16, 2024

Early mainframe computer programs were contained in stacks of cardboard punch cards. Although it has been many years since they have been used for this purpose, punch cards still have a few uses, and are most notably used in some voting machines.

Punch cards were actually invented before electronic computers. Originally patented by Herman Hollerith, the punch card was first used with tabulating machines to record vital statistics by the New York City Board of Health, and later, in the 1890 census. Hollerith actually got the idea from the cards used in Jacquard looms, which use cards to control a weave pattern.

Hollerith invented electromechanical machines that included a punch device, a tabulating machine and a sorting machine, which could be used to accumulate and store statistics. His company, the Tabulating Machine Company, was later joined by Thomas Watson, who later renamed the company International Business Machines (IBM).

The size and number of columns has varied over the years, with the original card used in the 1890 census having 20 columns with 10 punch positions each. There are a few interesting parallels to modern operating systems. In 1928, IBM introduced and patented the 80 column card that used rectangular holes instead of round holes, which was significant because it limited IBM's competitors to the older, incompatible round-hole format.

Remington Rand designed a competing format that permitted 90 columns of text to be stored on 45 column cards, which was actually a superior design, but because of IBM's dominance of the market, were not used as often. Card processing did not necessarily require the use of a computer. Some retail applications, for example, used a card sorter and tabulating machine for accounting functions, such as totaling price fields on cards in multiple categories.

Programming languages required the early fixed format cards to move to a free format design, and with the development of standardized computer languages such as FORTRAN and COBOL, generic punched cards became prevalent.

It wasn't until the 1970s that large data processing operations began shifting from punch cards to timesharing environments with data stored on magnetic tape.

Punch cards are still widely used in voting machines, despite problems that have occurred over the years. In the 1968 general election in Detroit, a rainstorm soaked one batch of ballots, and in the 2000 presidential election, questions arose as to their accuracy and efficiency as compared to more modern systems.

EasyTechJunkie is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By oasis11 — On Oct 18, 2010

Moldova-Wow, I remember watching the canvassing board count those ballots on television. I think the only punch card I have ever used was a loyalty punch card that they give you at Smoothie King.

After about 10 purchases, you are entitled for a free smoothie. They usually punch your card each time you make a purchase. It does encourage me to go back. I really like when businesses do this.

By Moldova — On Oct 18, 2010

SauteePan- Also, you had the problem with hanging chads, which again debated whether the voter intended to vote for that person which is why the chad was slightly hanging, but it was not completely removed which normally happens when there is a definitive vote.

These gray areas were the reasons why Florida uses touch screen voting machines. The punch card voting machines left too many uncertainties.

By SauteePan — On Oct 18, 2010

Subway11-I know that punch card voting used to be used in Florida. After the punch card history that Florida had in the 2000 Presidential election, the state decided to do away with the punch card voting and instead use electronic touch screen voting machines.

The problem with the punch card ballot was that since the Presidential race was so close, these ballots were under enormous scrutiny.

For example, if someone did not fill in the bubble correctly and apply enough pressure then it was an under vote. It was debated if these under votes should be counted because the machines were not recording them as votes even though it appeared that the voter had the intention of voting because they partially filled in the bubble.

By subway11 — On Oct 18, 2010

Anon 110210- I am not sure which materials are used. I do know that a company by the name of Pyramid Technologies is a well known provider for punch cards.

I just wanted to say that punch cards are often used to record an employee’s time at work. They are also referred to as time cards.

An employee punch card is issued when an employee starts a job. He or she is given a numerical card that the employee will be required to use when they enter the job site to start their work day and when they go home.

The timeclock will register the exact time of arrival and departure when the card is placed in middle slot of the time clock. While this time clock is a manual time clock, many businesses are now using electronic time clocks that calculate weekly totals along with payroll.

This is especially important if the business is larger because it could be time consuming to use a business punch card from a manual time clock in order to process payroll for over 100 people. In this case the electronic punch card clock is much better.

By anon110210 — On Sep 11, 2010

which materials were used in punch cards?

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