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Definition: 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Today, the punch card is obsolete; however, some voting systems used the punch-card method until 2014.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 so that ballots could never be recounted in close elections (see e-voting). So much for progress! See sorter, tabulator and Hollerith machine.

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

The Player Piano Roll
The development of pneumatic mechanisms to read a piano roll dates back to the mid-1800s. By the time Hollerith was thinking about punch cards, holes were already being punched into piano rolls.