Sheet 1 of Hollerith's U.S. Patent 395,782 showing his early concept for recording statistical information by means of holes punched in paper.
Starting at the end of the nineteenth century, well before the advent of electronic computers
, data processing was performed using electromechanical
machines called unit record equipment
, electric accounting machines
) or tabulating machines
Unit record machines came to be as ubiquitous in industry and government in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century as computers
became in the last third. They allowed large volume, sophisticated data-processing tasks to be accomplished before electronic computers were invented and while they were still in their infancy. This data processing was accomplished by processing punched cards
through various unit record machines in a carefully choreographed progression. This progression, or flow, from machine to machine was often planned and documented with detailed flowcharts
that used standardized symbols for documents and the various machine functions. All but the earliest machines had high-speed mechanical feeders to process cards at rates from around 100 to 2,000 per minute, sensing punched holes with mechanical, electrical, or, later, optical sensors. The operation of many machines was directed by the use of a removable plugboard
, control panel
, or connection box
. Initially all machines were manual or electromechanical
. The first use of an electronic component was in 1937 when a photocell was used in a Social Security bill-feed machine. Electronic components were used on other machines beginning in the late 1940s.IBM
was the largest supplier of unit record equipment and this article largely reflects IBM practice and terminology. Read more...