Automaatse infotöötluse algus: perfokaartidel põhinevad infosüsteemid [Abstract: The beginning of automatic information processing: information systems on punch cards]


  • Kurmo Konsa University of Tartu



History of Information Management, Information System, Punch Cards, Hollerith, Tabulator


Abstract: The beginning of automatic information processing: information systems on punch cards

Toward the end of the 19th century, several different national bureaucratic institutions and private enterprises had evolved and expanded to such an extent that new information management tools and methods were necessary. The electromechanical data-processing system developed by Hermann Hollerith in the 1880s, which operated on the basis of punch cards, can be regarded as the predecessor of modern automatic digital data-processing systems. Information storage and data processing systems were accomplished through punch cards, i.e. carton cards in a standardised form. Information was punched onto the cards by perforating in fixed positions. Hollerith invented a number of electromechanical devices that could punch information on cards and process the cards that were carrying information. The sorter machine made it possible to sort cards by the perforated marker in a column, and the tabulator enabled counting and adding up cards.

This article treats the development of punch card-based systems by demonstrating the primary modifications and correlating them with the purposes of such systems. In order to do this, I will divide the punch card-based systems into five generations. The system was created in the United States in the 1880s to process large volumes of statistical data that had been recorded in population censuses. Several countries applied this system in everyday practice up until the beginning of the 20th century. In 1894, information systems capable of processing statistical data evolved out of this development. These systems were still in use even after the end of World War II. Solutions that facilitated bookkeeping were developed by 1906; such systems served until the 1960s, in some places even longer. Population registers based on punch cards were elaborated between 1935 and 1937, and were used by various countries until the 1960s. Upon the introduction of electronic computers after World War II, punch cards were used to enter data and programs into the computers.

Punch card-based systems were the first automatic systems that were able to process large quantities of data. They were the most complex information systems from the end of the 19th century until the end of World War II, offering the most multifarious options. After the introduction of electronic computers, the application of such systems was consistently scaled back, but they were still widely in use until the mid-20th century.

The experience and technical knowledge gained while applying punch card-based information systems laid the groundwork for further digital developments in computer systems. As both of these systems were used in parallel over a considerably long period of time, knowledge was shared between them. To represent data units on punch cards, data had to be encoded. This shared knowledge resulted in significant gains in the processing of information, specifically the division of data into discrete, distinctly specified units to mechanically process information, and the representation of data units on punch cards via encoding.

The codes of the early punch card-based systems were case based, and had been elaborated according to the data to be analysed, and to the purposes of processing. Further developments made these encoding systems more universal, so that they came to be used as standards. Punch cards were the first data carriers that could be read by machines. Corresponding devices were employed to punch, read and process information on cards. The initial versions of these systems were easily read by the naked eye, but later the systems evolved to become completely number based. The constant increase in the amount of data recorded on the cards was the result of more complex tasks, as well as the growing abundance of calculation options on the tabulators themselves. Programming with changeable setups, which characterised the first generations of programming, was followed by conditional programming with punch cards themselves. Increased processing speed was one of the milestones in the development of punch card-based systems. The systems were characterised by a vast universality. Data, once recorded on the cards, was available for repeated analysis, regardless of the objective. Punch cards were the first databases that could be processed automatically. Nonetheless, operating mechanical information systems required a firmer organisation and standardisation of the working process.


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Author Biography

Kurmo Konsa, University of Tartu

Kurmo Konsa is Associate Professor of Archival Studies at the Institute of History and Archaeology.





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