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Icons of Progress

The IBM Punched Card

As Brown University history Professor Steven Lubar has written about the punch card, “The cultural manifestations of technologies often outlast their material manifestations. Culture changes more slowly than technology.” The IBM Card was a powerful symbol of a culture undergoing a tectonic shift into the information age. The cultural adoption of the punch card reflected, Lubar added, “the popular reaction to the computerization of American business and society.”

Capturing the public’s fascination

The IBM Card was ubiquitous, staying in the zeitgeist for decades. Starting in the 1940s it emerged in newspapers and magazines: The New Yorker published a story in 1940 about crowds gathered in front of an office-supply store in Albany, New York to watch punch card sorting machines, followed by stories in the Saturday Evening Post and Colliers Magazine.

More than a number

In a lengthy essay on the cultural impact of the punched card, Professor Steven Lubar of Brown University traces the cultural history of the cards being used at universities: “Punch cards also came to represent the students themselves… In part, this was an attempt to claim the authority that had been invested in the punch card. Punch cards were, after all, the visible part of the bureaucratic system, which held power at the university. People deserved at least the same rights as punch cards. One student at [University of California] Berkeley pinned a sign to his chest: “I am a UC student. Please don’t bend, fold, spindle or mutilate me.”

Punched cards in popular culture

The phrase “Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate” associated with punch cards inspired a 1971 movie starring Helen Hayes, Mildred Natwick, Myrna Loy and Sylvia Sidney as four elderly pranksters devoted to practical jokes. When one of the ladies gets hold of a computer-dating questionnaire, the others invent a mythical girl and feeds the falsified punch card information into the computer. “Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate” led to the casting of Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick in the weekly detective series “The Snoop Sisters.”

Punched cards are still an occasional theme in television shows associated with the cartoonist, screenwriter, and producer Matt Groening. In “The Simpsons” episode “Much Apu About Nothing,” Apu’s Ph.D. thesis, a computer tic-tac-toe game, was written so long ago it was stored on punched cards. In the “Futurama” episode “Mother’s Day,” a robot burns a punched card in protest. In another episode, “Put Your Head On My Shoulder,” Bender uses punched cards to calculate matches for his dating service.