Punch Cards

Punch cards have been used to control the operation of machinery from the early nineteenth century, when the Frenchman Joseph Marie Jacquard patented an attachment to a loom in which a series of punched cards (one for each row of the weave) controlled the threads raised in producing the pattern. Versions of the Jacquard loom were adopted only in France but Great Britain, United States, and around the world. The Textiles collection at NMAH contains extensive materials relating to Jacquard-style loom attachments. These include designs for fabrics woven with them, cards and sets of cards, a machine for cutting such cards, and related patent models. In addition, Textiles has coverlets, shawls, and fabric samples woven with such looms.

The Englishman Charles Babbage greatly admired Jacquard’s invention. He suggested that punch cards might be used to govern the operation of computing devices, although he did not transform this idea into a practical product. By the late nineteenth century, conductors on railway cards routinely used very simple punch cards to record the destination of passengers on trains.