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Tabulating Machines

Tabulating Machines

Tabulating machines, or punched card machines, were the earliest automated data processing devices. They include keypunch machines, collators, sorters, reproducers, and tabulators. By the late 1980s, virtually all tabulating machines had been replaced by digital computer systems.

A keypunch machine was a data entry device that punched holes in a lightweight piece of cardboard. A deck of blank cards was placed in a hopper. A keypunch operator signaled a punched card to be loaded into the punching station of the machine. As the operator typed on a keyboard, a series of dies punched predefined holes in the selected card column. One or more holes in a vertical column represented one character.

Earliest Punched Card Machines

The first machine to use punched cards was a loom designed in 1801 by a French weaver named Joseph-Marie Jacquard (17521834). It used punched holes in a card to direct the movement of needles, thread, and fabric on a loom so elaborate patterns could be created. In 1833 English inventor Charles Babbage (17911871) designed what he called the "Analytical Engine." Although Babbage's device was never fully built or operational, he conceptualized a general-purpose computer that could add, subtract, multiply, and divide in automatic sequence. It was designed to follow instructions from punched cards.

From Hollerith to IBM

In the late 1880s, Herman Hollerith (18601929) began developing a punched card machine to record and process data to be used in tabulating the U.S. census. In 1890 Hollerith's punched card tabulating machine was used successfully for the U.S. Census Bureau. The machine consisted of a puncher, a tabulator, and a sorter with compartments controlled by the tabulator's counters. The tabulator operated using nails, cups half-filled with mercury, and spring-actuated points. After the card was punched with data about a person, it was placed into the tabulator on a reader station. A lid was closed over the card. Wherever one of the points found a hole, it would stick down into the mercury and close an electric connection. Each electrical connection was registered on a dial that functioned as a counter. The machine was a major success and the U.S. census was completed in record time.

In 1896 Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company. Shortly after 1900, Hollerith began developing a new generation of tabulating equipment. He designed a simpler keypunch mechanism, a punched card designed around numeric information in columns, an automatic feed card sorter, and an automatic feed tabulator. This new generation of equipment could accumulate numbers of any size and therefore could be applied to more business and scientific applications.

In 1911 the Computer-Tabulating-Recording Company was formed through a merger of the Tabulating Company, the Computer Scale Company, and the International Time Recording Company. In 1914 Thomas J. Watson became president of the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company. In 1924 the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company changed its name to International Business Machines (IBM). IBM's name would become synonymous with the punched card. Even now, the punched card is still sometimes called the "IBM card."

Punched Cards in Business and Government

The success of the 1890 census ensured that the punched card and the tabulating machine had a bright future. Punched cards and tabulating machines found many business applications. Around 1906, railroad companies began using punched cards and tabulating machines to keep track of operating expenses and records regarding the shipment of goods. In 1910 the Aetna Life and Casualty Company used punched cards and tabulating machines to compile mortality data. The government used many of Hollerith's tabulating machines during World War I (19141918). The army used the machines to track inventory and keep medical and psychological records about soldiers. The War Industries Board used the machines to perform accounting tasks.

By the 1920s and continuing through the 1950s, punched card technology became more sophisticated. The electromechanical accounting machine (EAM) comprised a series of IBM punched-card devices that included the cardpunch (keypunch), the collator, sorter, reproducer, and tabulator. The collator was a punched card machine that merged two sorted decks of cards into one or more stacks. The sorter organized cards by routing them into separate stackers based on the content of a card column. The complete operation required passing the cards through the machine once for each column sorted. The reproducer duplicated the punched cards. The tabulator was an accounting machine that calculated totals; some even printed the results. The EAM was so successful that it became the mainstay of data processing until the 1960s.

In the 1930s the University of Iowa used punched cards for student registration. In 1933 the Agricultural Adjustment Administration began issuing punched card checks. Three years later, the Social Security Administration also issued punched card checks. During the 1940s, libraries began to use punched cards to keep track of books.

By the 1950s use of the punched card in business as a data entry source was widespread. Utility companies, department stores, and the telephone company sent punched cards with their bills and developed accounts receivable and payable systems based on the customer returning the punched card along with their payment. By the 1960s the punched card was recognized as a symbol of the computer age, as were the words "Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate"the familiar warning printed on them.

Punched Cards Replaced

One aspect of tabulating machines that distinguishes them from modern computers is the use of an "external" program. Programs were prepared on large punched boards that wired the appropriate circuits together. These had to be changed for each operation. Today, programs are internal; they are written in a code that is stored in the computer.

The shift from using tabulating equipment to enter and process data to using a computer began with the first commercially available computer, UNIVAC I (Universal Automatic Computer). This machine was developed by John W. Mauchly (19071980) and J. Presper Eckert, Jr. (19191995) at the Remington-Rand Corporation. When UNIVAC I became successful, IBM entered the commercial computer market. In 1953 IBM introduced the IBM 650, which was designed as a logical update to its existing punched card machines. With the use of a computer to perform calculations, the tabulator was no longer needed.

In 1965 Mohawk Data Sciences delivered the first data recorder that used magnetic tape instead of punched cards. This recorder was the first major effort to replace the punched card as a data entry medium. An operator using a keyboard entered the data, and the data were stored directly to magnetic tape.

Further changes in data entry occurred in 1972 when IBM introduced the 3741, a device that allowed keyed data to be stored on a diskette. Diskettes gained wide acceptance as an input medium because they were reusable, held many input records, could be read more rapidly than punched cards, were less expensive, and allowed the data on the diskette to be changed and corrected. This device rapidly began to replace the punched card as a means of entering data into a computer system. With the introduction of the cathode ray tube (CRT) and hard copy terminals in the late 1970s, as well as software to support such devices, punched cards and tabulating machines were no longer needed. By the late 1980s, they were fully replaced by mainframes, minicomputers, and microcomputer systems.

see also Babbage, Charles; Census Bureau; Eckert, J. Presper, Jr., and Mauchly, John W.; Hollerith, Herman; IBM Corporation; Jacquard's Loom.

Charles R. Woratschek


Long, Larry, and Nancy Long. Computers: Brief Edition Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999.

Lubar, Steven. "Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate: A Cultural History of the Punched Card." Smithsonian. May, 1991.

Shelly, Gary B., and Thomas J. Cashman. Introduction to Computers and Data Processing. Brea, CA: Anaheim Publishing Company, 1980.

Shurkin, Joel. Engines of the Mind. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.

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Throughout human history man has invented devices to make repetitive tasks, such as mathematical calculation, easier. For much of history, this was difficult. The advent of methods, which progressed to machines, to help with this dilemma made life much easier for many.

Early Calculators

The first aids in counting were notched sticks and counting cords, simple tools used to retain numerical information over time and distance. These devices did not perform any mathematical operations.

A major revolution came with the abacus. This device allowed both arithmetical operations and the ability to store a fixed sum, which was represented by a given pattern of beads. The abacus, which is still in use today, was fast and extremely useful in the hands of a trained user.

The French mathematician Blaise Pascal is credited with inventing the mechanical calculator in 1642, based on a stylus and wheel design. In 1820, based on Pascal's design, Thomas de Colmar invented the "Arithmometer." In his design, de Colmar took Pascal's wheels and turned them on their sides. They were made wider, and tally marks were put on the outside of the drum.

The first adding machine that printed results on tape was introduced around 1872. When first introduced, many of the adding machines were hand-driven, but later models had electric motors. One of the more impressive of the early adding machines was the Burroughs Class 1/Model 9. It was 19 inches deep, over a foot tall, and weighed more than 63 pounds.

In 1911, the Monroe LN was introduced. Previously adding machines had been separate from those that performed multiplication and division. The Monroe LN combined these two machines into one.

As the world entered the 1950s, new progress in electronic circuitry and data processing techniques began to pave the way for reasonably sized electronic calculators. At this time, electronic adding machines were common, but most designs were based on the technology of the mechanical calculator, with electricity used to power the drum or pinwheel movement. The calculators of the 1960s were desktop sized, utilized thousands of separate electronic components, and were costly to assemble.

Electronic Calculators

The first mass-produced electronic calculators often had retail prices of nearly one thousand dollars. The high cost was, in part, because the technology was so new, and materials were at a premium.

A breakthrough came in 1964 when Victor Business Machines contracted with General Microelectronics to develop an integrated circuit-based desktop electronic calculator. Following this, Texas Instruments began to produce an integrated circuit-based, hand-held calculator called the "Cal-Tech." It performed the four basic arithmetical operations.

Modern Calculators

The calculators of today have come a long way from where they started. Today, calculators can perform a range of complicated functions as well as basic ones. Commonly, people use calculators to ease the burden of performing routine mathematical calculations, such as balancing checkbooks. Hand-held calculators now allow people to do calculations anywhere, with little risk of error in the results.

see also Abacus; Computers, Evolution of Electronic.

Brook E. Hall

Internet Resources

Before HP Calculators. The Museum of HP Calculators. June 2001. <>.

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