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Icons of Progress

The IBM Punched Card


Perhaps the earliest icon of the Information Age was a simple punched card produced by IBM, commonly known as the “IBM card.” Measuring just 7- 3/8 inches by 3- 1/4 inches, the piece of smooth stock paper was unassuming, to be sure. But taken collectively, the IBM card held nearly all of the world’s known information for just under half a century—an impressive feat even by today’s measures. It rose to popularity during the Great Depression and quickly became a ubiquitous installment in the worlds of data processing and popular culture. What’s more, the punched card provided such a significant profit stream that it was instrumental to IBM’s rapid growth in the mid-twentieth century.

In 1928, IBM introduced a new version of the punched card with rectangular holes and 80 columns. This newly designed “IBM Computer Card” was the end result of a competition between the company’s top two research teams, working in secrecy from one another. It turned out to be one of IBM’s most important technological innovations, propelling the company to the forefront of data processing. For almost four decades, it was the major medium for storing, sorting and reporting data processed first through punched card equipment and later computers. As late as the mid-1950s, punched card sales made up 20 percent of IBM’s revenues and an astonishing 30 percent of its bottom line.

Punched cards date back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when they were used to “program” cloth-making machinery and looms. In the 1880s and 1890s, Herman Hollerith used them with his tabulators—a core product of what would eventually become IBM. Over the following three decades, IBM and its rivals redesigned the cards using different sizes and greater numbers of holes—mostly round—each one representing a piece of data (bit). IBM’s first card had 22 columns and 8 punch positions; then 24 columns and 10 positions (1900); and until the late 1920s, it had 45 columns of round holes and 12 punch positions. But it was not enough, as customers needed to put more data on each card. The challenge, of course, was that the card was running out of room and couldn’t get any bigger. If IBM invented a new or larger card, it would need to replace its entire equipment line and attempt to sell the machines all over again. How could this problem be solved?

Thomas Watson Sr., head of IBM at the time, asked two of his best inventors, Clair D. Lake and J. Royden Peirce, to each develop a new card. Both had a long history of inventing punched card technologies and had more patents between them than most American inventors of the twentieth century. He asked them each to develop a solution independently of one another. Each formed a team and went to work. Peirce wanted to use the existing card with round holes, but make it possible for each hole to represent more than one number or symbol—thereby doubling the storage of data but with half of it devoted to alphanumeric characters.

Lake’s team proposed smaller holes, rectangular in shape, which would be easier to read by the metal tabulators but also require new machines, specifically punches and readers. In the middle of this contest sat James W. Bryce, IBM’s most prolific inventor of the century with more than 500 patents. He knew both colleagues and understood their proposed innovations. Watson asked him to choose the best solution. Bryce voted for Lake’s approach because it could be implemented quickly and required the least adjustment in how tabulating machines worked. Bryce also knew there was little demand for alphabetic information, and wanted to move away from round-holed machines which were more common. Nobody had rectangular holes.

Watson accepted Lake’s proposal for both technical and business reasons. It was distinctive, it could be protected with patents, and it would work. He wanted to promote it as the “IBM card.” Introduced in 1928, this card had 80 columns (nearly twice the number as the old card), 10 rows for coding numbers, 12 in a modified version of the card introduced in 1930. It was unique, well accepted by customers, and served as a model for other special purpose cards and hardware products introduced from the 1930s through the 1950s. By the late 1960s, most of IBM’s punched-card machines were no longer in production, although the punched cards themselves lived on as the dominant input/output medium for electronic computers.

Remington Rand was IBM’s main competitor in the punched card space. In 1927, Rand purchased the Powers Accounting Machine Company and, in doing so, kicked off a fierce innovation battle with IBM. The race of one-upmanship resulted in a slew of accounting developments focused on speed and automatic operations.

Beyond accounting purposes, the card had other uses in IBM. Until the early 1990s—long after IBM had ceased selling the punched cards for data processing—it was common practice for IBMers to use them for speaker notes for presentations, as they fit comfortably in the inside pocket of a suit jacket. Secretaries, too, used these cards for transcribing phone messages and typing driving directions. Even IBM executives routinely carried them around with their calendar for the day typed on them.

The IBM card will forever be tied to the modern age of information, serving as the most commonly used method of data storage for nearly a half century. The punched card was an essential part of IBM’s development, and undoubtedly helped shape the company as we know it today.