Caveat: This is maybe a borderline for RC, as it's about systematic data processing even before (and in parallel to) computers.

Before (and parallel to) computer and/or tabulating machine punch cards there have been other systems for data processing. For example Edge-Notched Cards. These systems where used for manual indexing, sorting and searching, and where not meant for automated processing (*1). While references to the Edge-Notched Card system are rather easy to come by, as they may have had large usage in the US, I wasn't able to find any about other systems - at least not in English language sources.

For a little side project I do need English names for the two other systems. (Second and Third of the list)

The most simple way might be to describe them in short:

  • First ofc, the Edge Notch Cards - German name Kerblochkarte, literal Kerf Hole Card (Kerf as Middle English for Notch) or Randlochkarte, literal Edge Hole Card.

    Here each card has a number of holes along one or more edges. For example 26 on the one edge to encode the 26 basic latin letters along an employee record, so the first letter of the name could be encoded and searched (*2). Selections would be made by piercing knitting needle like tools thru a stack encoding the search term and shaking it to have all matching cards fall out. Extrem handy, isn't it :))

    For this system a lot of online information can be found with some variety of information.

  • Next is the Schlitzlochkarte - literal Slit (Slot) Hole Card

    Here the holes are not along the edges, but within the card. always as pairs. To mark (punch) information for one pair the land inbetween is to be removed. The system is similar to Edge-Notch Cards, but by using all (or much) of the surface, much more information can be encoded. Letter sized cards of this system could encode more than 100 information chunks (*3) to be searched with AND condition in a single operation, somewhat like the Edge-Notch Cards.

  • The third system are Sichtlochkarten - literal Sight (View) Hole Cards

    Here a large array of hole positions where marked, depending on sheet size up to 10,000 per sheet. This time not the key words where marked, but the target ID of the matching item. Let's assume it's about the index for a library. All books get an ID 1..10,000. To form an index, for each keyword that should be searchable one punch card is prepared with a hole at each books number that fits the search term. Terms kan be anything from autor and topic to age specification or anything else.

    Let's say there are cards prepared for differnt subjects like Astronomy, Mathematics, Physics, and so on, as well as book cathegories. To find a Novel about a Mathematician practising Fortune Telling one only needs to pick these three cards, stack them and hold the stack against some light. Whereever there are a hole for the same book on all three cards the light will shine thru, and the book(s) marked are the ones we want to have a look at (*4).

So my question is : What are these punch card systems called in English

Bonus points for their name in other languages.

And as well for naming (and pointing to) any other system than the above (*5).

Funny sideshow: These systems where not only used way into the 1970s, but today it's mainly people from the humanities like librarians et.al who remember them, while engineers and CS people have forgotten them - or even never heared about.

*1 - Automated in the sense of tabulating machines or computers.

*2 - This is just a simple first explanation, there are various strategies to make hash like encoding with multiple notches so even for a large company only a few hits would be returned, making it easy to weed out false hits - much like selecting the right hit from the first page of a Google search :)) Here's a very nice example about what could be done.

*3 - I try to be careful here, as encoding was neither binary in the sense we use it today nor that simple, so let's call it chunks.

*4 - By using part translucent paper even a fuzzy search can be implemented - but that (and many other variations) are a different story.

*5 - I'm not looking for applications of (more or less) standard punchcard systems from Jacquard to hotel key cards, but such with a fundamental different approach than binary.

  • If you are collecting variants of punch cards, also have a look at the Markierungskarten (3rd picture) used by Olivetti (and I think some other systems). No idea what the English term is. Yes, it's not punched.
    – dirkt
    Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 9:10
  • @dirkt Nice link, thanks a lot. These are well known Mark-Sense cards. And no, I'm not (explicit) collecting punch cards, but preparing lecture for VCF in Berlin in October, and wanted to be at least ready to use the correct or at least understandable terms when anwering questions to non German speakes.
    – Raffzahn
    Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 14:48
  • All of these systems are binary: paper exists in a position, or has been removed. Whether a fact is represented by a single position, or multiple, does not matter. For example, in modern computers, eight bits can represent an ASCII digit. But it's still binary, even if eight bits are needed to represent the digit. Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 21:19
  • @WayneConrad Then there are system of edge notch cards with two rows and more complex markings which are not as simple. But yes, with enough spin, even decimal machines can be defined as binary. after all, having 10 signals with one of them being on can be redefined as binary, couldn't it? Heck, why again didn't we just stay with them? SCNR - But serious, there are differences between a binary system and others no matter that both use 'on/off' signals.
    – Raffzahn
    Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 21:24
  • 1
    You may be interested in this link: BEFORE COMPUTERS: NOTCHED CARD DATABASES Commented Jun 19, 2019 at 8:40

3 Answers 3


First ofc, the Edge Notch Cards - German name Kerblochkarte, literaly _Kerf Hole Card (Kerf as Middle English for Notch) or Randlochkarte, literaly Edge Hole Card.

Pretty close to the German term, these are called edge-notched cards

Next is the Schlitzlochkarte - literaly Slit (Slot) Hole Card

Apparently, these are called "slotted card", "slit punch card" or "slit card". I've never heard any of those terms, nor the German one, and a quick web search didn't reveal anything relevant for these though.

The third System are Sichtlochkarten - literaly Sight (View) Hole Cards

peek-a-boo cards, from the game played with very small children, where you hide your face behind your hands. That word "peek-a-boo" is associated with something suddenly or unexpectedly becoming visible

  • The first is clear, as I took it from Wiki - it was more ment as an introduction. For the others, I'm not realy looking forpossible translatios but how these systems have been called back in the days, As I assume they where used in English speakign countries. The missing online resources are a huge problem for this research. The Peek-A-Boo name seams like a full on hit. I guess I would have never searched for this even in a million years :)) Thanks a lot.
    – Raffzahn
    Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 14:53

Your examples in German are the names of the paper medium, which I have highlighted in bold below. However, it was more common to create a specialized name for the device that reads the medium, rather than the medium itself. So if you're expecting fancy English words for the medium, they don't exist.

  • Basile Bouchon, Lyon France, 1725. Roll of paper tape read by needles to control patterns in a loom.
  • Jean-Baptiste Falcon, Lyon France, 1728. Assistant to Bouchon who improved the loom with an endless loop of rectangular cards, made of stiff pasteboard and chained together. The stiffer cards were more durable than the paper tape.
  • Jacques de Vaucanson, Lyon France, 1740. Punched paper wrapped around a perforated cylinder called the "barrel". Previous designs encoded one row of holes for each woven thread; Vaucanson's design used two rows of holes -- in essence, the first multi-word instruction set. It was also the first design to automatically advance itself. The design was never actually produced.
  • Joseph Marie Jacquard, Lyon France 1804. Combined Falcon's chain of cards with Vaucanson's multi-row technique (this time, 8 rows of holes per thread). Commercially successful.
  • Semyon Korsakov, St. Petersburg Russia, 1832. Inventions to analyze police statistics. Holes were punched in a sheet of paper with a rectangular grid, called a "table". A strip of wood called a "homeoscope" had pins inserted into the rows to be matched. The homeoscope was rubbed across the paper, and any column where the pins fell through was a match. Also invented a more sophisticated reader called an "ideograph".
  • Charles Babbage, Cambridge England, 1837. Designed the "Analytical Engine", a mechanical computer and the first general-purpose computer. Three different types of punch cards (load/store, operation selection, numerical constants), each with their own reader; some in card stacks and some in card chains. In addition, a drum with pegs that acted as primitive microcode.
  • Jules Carpentier, France, 1881. Invented the "Melograph", which recorded music played on a pump organ onto punched cards. The series of cards could be played back on a "Melotrope".
  • Herman Hollerith, United States, 1890. The unit record card was a punch card that represented the census information of one person. By sensing the presence of a hole, a counter was electrically incremented, allowing census records to be counted. Hollerith's company would eventually become IBM.
  • Max Newman, Bletchley Park England, 1940s. Invented the Heath Robinson and Colossus machines to decypher the German Enigma code. Ciphertext and the proposed part of the key were punched onto two long loops of paper tape, which were optically scanned and electronically processed.
  • Thanks for the effort. All of what you mention iswell known, but you missed the question. It's not about the mdium or ways to transport punch hole papers, but different methods of encoding and hadling of such. All of your examples (except for pneumatic organs which are analouge) work in a binary fashion and are handled by detection over a medium passign thru a sensor of some kind. This is not true for the systems I'm looking for. They are for manual handling on single sheeds which are as well ordinary index cards.
    – Raffzahn
    Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 14:36
  • Add on - It seams you just got mixed up with the german habbit of how to create words. We usually try to make things a 'thing', not a method or whatsoever. Maybe giving a literaltranslation wasn't as good of an idea. Stay with the explanations I tried.
    – Raffzahn
    Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 14:37

Player pianos and knitting machines are two non-computer uses of punch card systems.

  • @Wilson The examples I provided are not binary. Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 8:16
  • I'll take your word for it Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 8:17
  • 1
    @traal The question asks "What are these punch card systems called in English?" I don't really understand the question (I'm a little tired at the moment) but I'm not certain that this answers it.
    – wizzwizz4
    Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 12:59
  • @traal Erm. It's less about non computer, but rather non binary/machien handled. Pianos and Kniting Machines punched card (loops) are simple binary (note or no note, thread or no thread) and machine handled systems (Pneumatic organs using such card-tapes are analogue, but still automatic handled).
    – Raffzahn
    Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 14:41
  • @Raffzahn Ah, I thought you meant binary as in numerical values. Commented Sep 1, 2018 at 15:12

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