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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 a keypunch machine or card punch peripheral and were fed into the computer by a card reader.

From 1890 until the 1970s, punch cards were synonymous with data processing. The concepts were simple: the database was the file cabinet; a record was a card. Processing was performed on separate machines called "sorters," "collators," "reproducers," "calculators" and "accounting machines." Today, the punch card is all but obsolete except for voting systems in some states. The presidential election of 2000 brought punch cards into infamy and made the U.S. the brunt of jokes worldwide for using such antiquated and error-prone systems. The solution in many states was to migrate to electronic voting machines, which happened to be 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.