punched card

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punched card

(esp US), punch card
(formerly) a card on which data can be coded in the form of punched holes. In computing, there were usually 80 columns and 12 rows, each column containing a pattern of holes representing one character

punched card

[′pəncht ‚kärd]
(computer science)

punched card

(storage, history)
(Or "punch card") The signature medium of computing's Stone Age, now long obsolete outside of a few legacy systems. The punched card actually predates computers considerably, originating in 1801 as a control device for Jacquard looms. Charles Babbage used them as a data and program storage medium for his Analytical Engine:

"To those who are acquainted with the principles of the Jacquard loom, and who are also familiar with analytical formul?, a general idea of the means by which the Engine executes its operations may be obtained without much difficulty. In the Exhibition of 1862 there were many splendid examples of such looms. [...] These patterns are then sent to a peculiar artist, who, by means of a certain machine, punches holes in a set of pasteboard cards in such a manner that when those cards are placed in a Jacquard loom, it will then weave upon its produce the exact pattern designed by the artist. [...] The analogy of the Analytical Engine with this well-known process is nearly perfect. There are therefore two sets of cards, the first to direct the nature of the operations to be performed -- these are called operation cards: the other to direct the particular variables on which those cards are required to operate -- these latter are called variable cards. Now the symbol of each variable or constant, is placed at the top of a column capable of containing any required number of digits."

-- from Chapter 8 of Charles Babbage's "Passages from the Life of a Philosopher", 1864.

The version patented by Herman Hollerith and used with mechanical tabulating machines in the 1890 US Census was a piece of cardboard about 90 mm by 215 mm. There is a widespread myth that it was designed to fit in the currency trays used for that era's larger dollar bills, but recent investigations have falsified this.

IBM (which originated as a tabulating-machine manufacturer) married the punched card to computers, encoding binary information as patterns of small rectangular holes; one character per column, 80 columns per card. Other coding schemes, sizes of card, and hole shapes were tried at various times.

The 80-column width of most character terminals is a legacy of the IBM punched card; so is the size of the quick-reference cards distributed with many varieties of computers even today.

See chad, chad box, eighty-column mind, green card, dusty deck, lace card, card walloper.

punch card

(1) See loyalty punch card.

(2) An early storage medium made of thin cardboard stock that held data as patterns of punched holes. Also called "punched" cards, each of the 80 or 96 columns held one character. The holes were punched by an operator at a keypunch machine or by an attached card punch peripheral. The cards were fed into the computer by a card reader.

From 1890 Until the 1970s
Punch cards were synonymous with data processing for 80 years. Concepts were simple: the database was the file cabinet; a record was a card, and processing was performed on separate machines called "sorters," "collators," "reproducers," "calculators" and "accounting machines." After the 1950s, business transactions were punched into cards and fed to a computer to update the electronic files, first on tape and then on disk.

Gone But Not Forgotten
Today, the punch card is obsolete; however, some voting systems used the punch-card method until 2014. The presidential election of 2000 brought punch cards into infamy and made the U.S. the brunt of jokes worldwide for using such an antiquated error-prone system. The solution in many states was to migrate to electronic voting machines, which were developed without audit trails that prevented ballots from being recounted in close elections. So much for progress! See e-voting, sorter, tabulator, accounting machine, plugboard and Hollerith machine.


IBM Punch Card
Stemming from Hollerith's punch card tabulating system in 1890, punch cards "were" synonymous with data processing for more than 70 years. IBM and Sperry Rand were the two major providers of equipment. This 80-column IBM card shows a typical customer master record.







Jacquard Loom Inspiration
In operation decades before, the Jacquard loom was inspiration for Hollerith's machines. See Jacquard loom. (Image courtesy of The Computer History Museum, www.computerhistory.org)
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