Columbia University Computing History

Hollerith Pantographic Card Punch

Pantographic punch 1919
Photo: US NARA via Wikipedia.

1920 Census form
1920 census form - Click to enlarge"
This 1940 photo (click on it to see in full size) shows a Pantographic punch operator entering data from a 1920 census form like the one at left; these are filled in by hand by the census takers. The form has been mounted on a roll that can be turned so the current entry (person) is just above the beveled edge of the wooden faceplate. Each punch requires the operator to position the stylus over the corresponding hole, a labor-intensive, painstaking, and error-prone operation. Hollerith himself said in one of his patent applications: "When the various items have been thus transcribed, it may be desirable or necessary to verify, entirely or in part, the accuracy of such transcription." [Truesdell, p.37] In any case, the pantographic punch in the Smithsonian museum says "THE TABULATING MACHINE COMPANY, WASHINGTON, D.C., System Patented January 8, 1889", in plenty of time for the 1890 census, and it was way more accurate and user-friendly than the railroad ticket punch, and also allowed for more data per card.

By 1910, some error checking was done by the tabulators themselves... "If the entire color, for example, was left unpunched the card would fail to register and therefore fail to ring the bell for which the operator was listening. Cards were also rejected if they were 'off gauge' or otherwide mechanically defective. These rejected cards were examined and the omitted items supplied — or new cards, conforming to the mechanical requirements, were punched. In addition to these defective cards, there were many cards containing items that were so far inconsistent as to raise questions with respect to the accuracy either of the punching or of the original returns from which they were punched. The verification run of 1900 was designed to take care of both types of defective cards, in advance of the use of the cards in final tabulations, through a special machine wired to reject not only incomplete and defective cards, but also those with inconsistent items, items otherwise frequently subject to question of accuracy, and a considerable number of items of infrequent occurrence, of which it was desired to be doubly certain." [Truesdell, p.94-95]

These verification runs were perhaps the first example of "programming by wire", made possible by Hollerith's invention of the wiring panel for his Type I Tabulator in 1906.

Frank da Cruz / / Columbia University Computing History / 30 May 2019 / Updated 22 February 2021