Punch Cards Punch Cards for Data Processing

In the late 1880s, American engineer Herman Hollerith saw a railroad punch card when he was trying to figure out new ways of compiling statistical information for the U.S. Census. His first punch card, like those used on railways, only had holes along the edges. The meaning of each hole was indicated on the card. By the time Hollerith tabulating equipment was used in the 1890 U.S. Census, holes were scattered across the cards, although their meaning was not indicated on it.

Hollerith and his employees at the Tabulating Machine Company in Washington, D.C. soon developed punched cards for use in compiling information for commercial enterprises such as railroads. They and staff of the U.S. Census Bureau prepared improved machines – these devices are shown in the object group on tabulating equipment. By the 1920s, the United States had two major manufacturers of punch card equipment, International Business Machines (the descendent of the Tabulating Machine Company) and Remington Rand (the descendent of Powers Accounting Machine Company established by Russian emigré and former Census Bureau employee James Powers). Each manufacturer developed a distinctive standard punch card. IBM cards had eighty columns of rectangular holes while those of Remington Rand had ninety columns of circular holes. Tabulating machines were widely used in both government and commerce, with cards designed to meet the needs of customers. For example, checks issued by the U.S. government often came on punch cards.

When IBM and Remington Rand began selling electronic computers in the years following World War II, punch cards became the preferred method of entering data and programs onto them. They also were used in later minicomputers and some early desktop calculators. Punch cards surviving in the Smithsonian collections reflect the widespread use of computers - they announced scores on standardized tests, served as a library cards, were part of the proof of mathematical theorems, and kept medical records. Some are printed with the names of users, from university computer centers and computer clubs to the Library of Congress to Bell Laboratories.