Columbia University Computing History

IBM Card Interpreters

IBM Type 552 Alphabetical Interpreter
   An interpreter adds printing to punched but otherwise blank cards, based on what's punched on each card. Most were not capable of reading or interpreting all 80 columns of a card. Thus the desired fields had to be selected by wiring the control panel appropriately. In any case, the printing characters were wider than the card columns, and did not line up. The 551 and 552 models, by allowing more than one row to be printed, also allowed interpretation of all 80 card columns by running the cards through twice with different column and row selections. The 551 requires one pass for each of up to 5 rows that is to be printed. The printing row is selected by a knob, shown below. On the 557, up to 25 rows can be printed in a signle pass. The print mechanism is a type bar; this is not dot-matrix printing as on the key punch, which differs from the printing on interpreted cards with its 1-to-1 correspondence with the card columns.

CLICK ON ANY IMAGE to enlarge.

Here's a table summarizing what I can find out about different IBM interpreter models:

Type Name Introduced Repertoire Columns Rows Feed Stacker Speed
550 Automatic Interpreter 1930 Numeric 45 1 800 1000 75
551 Check Writing Interpreter 1946? Alphanumeric 45 5     60
552 Alphabetical Interpreter 1946 Alphanumeric 60 2     60
557 Alphabetic Interpreter 1954 Alphanumeric 60 25 800 900 100
548 Interpreter 1958 Alphanumeric 60 2 700 900 60

Columns:    How many card columns can be interpreted in one pass.
Rows: On how many different rows can printing be done?
Feed: How many cards can go in the card (input) feed.
Stacker: How many cards can go in the (output) stacker.
Speed: Throughput, cards per minute.

Type 550/551

552 Knob

551 Knob

552 Panel

Type 557

Type 548

The 551 or its successors (if any) is/are known to millions of people who received US government or other checks printed on IBM cards or punched-card bills from public utitilities up until the not-too-distant past. Special features of the 551 included regular plus double-width type (e.g. to emphasize the amount of a check) and automatic asterisk fill (to prevent additional digits from being added after the fact), as shown in the following sample check:

  1. IBM Card Interpreters, Types 550, 551, and 552 - Principles of Operation, Form 22-3178-3 (Copyright 1946, 3rd Edition: May 1954). All photos except the 557 are from this manual.
  2. IBM 548,552 Interpreters - Manual of Operation, IBM Data Processing Division, 112 East Post Road, White Plains, New York, Form 224-6384-2 (Copyright 1946, 1958)
  3. IBM 557 Alphabetic Interpreter Reference Manual (Copyright 1954, 1958, 1959).

Also see:
Tabulators, Sorters, Key Punches, Collators, Reproducers, Calculators.

Most recent update: Tue Oct 22 16:34:12 2013

Frank da Cruz / / Columbia University Computing History