Packing a punch: cataloguing the museum’s punch card machines

Over the last four weeks I have undertaken a student placement at National Museums Scotland – and what a great four weeks it’s been! I’ve been working within the Science and Technology department under the supervision of Tacye Phillipson, on a project assessing and cataloguing the museum’s punch card machines, which were in need of some more attention and research since they were collected in the 1970s.

A rare machine for making the cards
Sophie at the National Museums Collection Centre, with a rare machine for making punch cards.

Punch card machines are the precursor to modern computers. Data is indicated by small holes punched into a card, which can be read by placing the card into another machine. The typical machines that make up a suite include a card punch to make the holes, a sorter or collator to organise the cards, and a tabulator to read and print the information.

A punch card
An example of a punch card.

I began my project by researching the machines, getting familiar with different makes and models, how they worked and how they fit into society from the early 20th century to around the 1980s, when they became redundant in the wake of the digital age.

I looked through vast amounts of lists and other paperwork trying to match them up with the machines, with the end goal being to create one list with every machine, numbered, with a physical description and a known location.

I ventured down to the National Museums Collection Centre in Granton, where I spent much of my time locating and assessing the machines and assigning numbers to the ones that needed them. Days at Granton could be tough work, assessing machine after machine whilst making sure I didn’t miss any important details.  However, I found the machines fascinating, being from a completely different world from the computers of today, where everything is digital and pre-programmed for you.

Sophie with one of the punch card machines.
Sophie with one of the punch card machines.

I have really enjoyed the project, and bringing together all my research to create one clear, comprehensive list has been incredibly satisfying. My time at the museum has been great and everyone has been really welcoming and interested in hearing about what I am doing. I will definitely be sad to go!

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