General Science, Mathematics, and Technology


What was the first major use for punched cards?

Punched cards were a way of programming, or giving instructions to, a machine. In 1801, Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752–1834) built a device that could do automated pattern weaving. Cards with holes were used to direct threads in the loom, creating predefined patterns in the cloth. The pattern was determined by the arrangement of holes in the cards, with wire hooks passing through the holes to grab and pull through specific threads to be woven into the cloth.

By the 1880s, Herman Hollerith (1860–1929) was using the idea of punched cards to give machines instructions. He built a punched card tabulator that processed the data gathered for the 1890 United States Census in six weeks (three times the speed of previous compilations). Metal pins in the machine’s reader passed through holes punched in cards the size of dollar bills, momentarily closing electric circuits.

The resulting pulses advanced counters assigned to details such as income and family size. A sorter could also be programmed to pigeonhole cards according to pattern of holes, an important aid in analyzing census statistics. Later, Hollerith founded Tabulating Machines Co., which in 1924 became IBM. When IBM adopted the 80-column punched card (measuring 7 3/8 ? 3 1/4 inches [18.7 ? 8.25 centimeters] and 0.007 inches [0.17 millimeters] thick), the de facto industry standard was set, which has endured for decades.


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