Jacquard, Babbage, and Hollerith: Punch Card History

In the 1980s, before personal computers became commonplace, we used punch cards on old fashioned mainframe computers like the IBM 360. The standard size for punch cards was 7-3/8” wide by 3-1/4” high by .007” thick. They looked like a piece of stock paper with the upper right-hand corner cut off. We encoded stacks of these cards with computer-readable instructions by punching small rectangular holes in them with an electrical device. Then we submitted our card decks to the computer operator, and waited for our hard-copy printouts.

In fact, punch cards had been being used for computerized tabulation for nearly 100 years. In 1900, National Geographic reported that the raw data from the 1890 U.S. census had been “transferred to cards, one card for every individual enumerated, in which holes are punched according to various possible answers to questions contained in the schedule.” Then the different fields on the card were counted electrically, using a machine invented by Herman Hollerith (1860-1929), where “needles passing through the punched holes on each card form electrical connections which operate clock-faced dials, showing numbers corresponding to each individual fact or combination of facts.” These tabulated results were further aggregated into the finished census report for printing. Hollerith would go on to found the company we know today as International Business Machines, or IBM.

The electrical counting device that Hollerith designed was a significant advance, but punched cards themselves were not new. In France, Jean Marie Jacquard (1752-1834) had used punched cards in the attachment he invented for the loom in 1804, which in turn was based on earlier applications of punched cards and tapes. Jacquard’s invention was revolutionary because it “automated” the weaving of complex-patterned fabrics like damask and brocade, and lowered the cost of production. The “Jacquard head” used punched cards, sewn together in a continuous loop, to mechanize the raising and lowering of lengthwise warp threads. The warp was held stationary and under tension while the transverse weft threads passed between raised and non-raised threads. It sounds confusing, but is pretty clear when you look at a demonstration video like the one listed at the end of this blog. Any loom outfitted with Jacquard’s attachment was thereafter known as a Jacquard loom.

In England, the mathematician Charles Babbage (1791-1871) began thinking about the automatic calculation of mathematical tables around 1812. By the 1830s, Babbage was making plans for the Analytical Engine, a device capable of “performing any arithmetical operation on the basis of instructions from punched cards, a memory unit in which to store numbers, sequential control, and most of the other basic elements of a present-day computer.” His friend Ada Lovelace translated a relevant paper from the French for Babbage, and annotated it with a description for performing sequential calculations. Lovelace is today recognized as the world’s first computer programmer, while Babbage is credited with conceiving the first digital programmable computer.

History teaches that we all stand on the shoulders of giants. My programming experiences in the 1980s drew on a remarkable history of creativity involving punch cards, looms, equipment powered by the taming of electricity, and other related devices. My goal is for all STEM students to understand how the past presages the present, and the present the future. In this way, I hope, they will envision themselves already standing on the shoulders of today’s technology giants, poised to make remarkable discoveries of their own.


Douglas W. Jones, “Punched Cards: A brief illustrated technical history”, accessed 7/9/20 at http://homepage.divms.uiowa.edu/~jones/cards/history.html

Michael N. Geselowitz. “The Jacquard Loom: A Driver of the Industrial Revolution”. IEEE Spectrum, 1 January 2019. Accessed 7/9/20 at https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-institute/ieee-history/the-jacquard-loom-a-driver-of-the-industrial-revolution

“How was it made? Jacquard loom”. Accessed 7/9/20 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6NgMNvK52A

James Essinger. Jacquard’s Web: How a Hand-Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age. Oxford University Press, 2004.