Seriously. In some states, voting data is still stored on paper cards. The technology goes back over 300 years and it’s still going strong today. The paper punched card is a slow, fragile, confusing form of storage but 50 years ago it beat the alternative, which was nothing.

Around the time of the US Revolutionary War, punched cards were used to control looms, which were the most complex machines of the day. Fancy rugs and tapestries were part of every rich person’s home, and these fancy looms were used to make them. Each line of stitching was stored on a big card with holes on it. This must have been the most earth-shattering technology ever.

The “modern” punched card owes its life to Herman Hollerith who standardized the cards in order to quickly record data for the 1890 census. For most of the 20th century it was the most common data storage format. The code used to translate letters and numbers to punch cards was still taught as late as the 1980s.

Punch cards were cheap to make and if you were writing a program, they were much easier to use than paper tape or magnetic tape, two other alternatives of the day. If you needed to change one line of code, simply find the card corresponding to that line and replace it. Just don’t drop a stack of 2,000 cards on the floor… that could ruin your whole day.

Massive punched card readers once dominated computer installations, with the cards being stored in temperature and humidity controlled closets. The cards, like any other paper, ripped, got wet, or simply fell apart from use. It was far from a perfect system.

The punched card business dropped off significantly with the introduction of floppy disks in the 1970s. Not only were discs faster and stored more, they were more permanent (providing of course you didn’t walk near a magnet.)

Perhaps the defining moment that forever sealed the fate of the punched card was in 2000, when punch-card ballots were the focus of the most closely contested presidential election in US history. Due to that controversy, many states moved away from the punched card ballot (one of the last uses of the technology.) Sadly some areas of California still use punched cards but perhaps, in time, we will finally see the last of these relics of another age.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.