A Bookkeeping Bonanza!

Baltimore Social Security office

Punching millions of social security “master cards” provided employment for hundreds of clerical workers, nearly all women. Each Type 31 card punch has two keyboards: one for letters, and one for numbers.

A Bookkeeping Bonanza!

During the Great Depression, a new law brought hope…and innovation.

The Social Security Act of 1935 provided retirement benefits to 30 million Americans, funded from the payrolls of tens of millions more. That presented a staggering accounting challenge.

IBM, the leading business machine company, was ready to meet that challenge—in part because the Depression had left it backlogged with equipment. Supply met demand.

Avoiding Chaos

“The Social Security agency punched cards from records sent in by employers…all over the country,” recalled IBM’s Tom Watson, Sr. “There were millions and millions of them, and if we hadn’t had some way of putting them together we would have been lost.”

IBM developed The Type 77 Collator to organize the avalanche of Social Security punched cards.

Woman at IBM 77 Collator with enlarged punched card

Punched cards for Social Security were preprinted to identify their data fields. This collator could merge cards collected from different locations into one sorted set.

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Type 31 Alphabetical Duplicating Punch

Punched card accounting machines increased the efficiency of office operations but the data first needed to be punched onto the cards. This keyboard-operated card punch could record letters as well as digits with a single keystroke, and was much faster than the single-lever pantograph punch originally used by Hollerith.

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Poster announcing Social Security

The government had to tell 26 million workers about applying for a social security number, and explain what were then called “old-age benefits," available when workers retired.

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Type 77 Collator

A collator can read two stacks of sorted punched cards and merges them into a single sorted stack. It can also remove duplicates and detect incorrectly sorted cards, as controlled by a wired plugboard. It can also remove duplicates and incorrectly sorted cards, as controlled by a wired plugboard. The Type 77 collator, designed initially for the Social Security Administration, can process four cards per second from each input stack.

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Type 80 Card Sorter

Sorting data into either numerical or alphabetic order is one of the most basic office automation tasks. The Type 80 sorted by reading the punches in one column of a card, then routing that card to the corresponding output bin. Sorting by multi-digit numbers or names required multiple passes. This sorter was one of IBM's most widely used punched card equipment in the pre-computing era. In 1943, there were over 10,000 units on lease.

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Type 10 Table Top Electric Key Punch

This electric punch, which had electromagnetic coils to drive the punches through the card at the right place, was faster and easier to use than Hollerith’s pantograph punch.

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Fuller is First!

Born in Vermont, and a classmate of Calvin Coolidge, Ida Mae Fuller worked as a schoolteacher and legal secretary. But it wasn’t her career that made her famous. It was her retirement.

In January 1940, Fuller received the first Social Security check issued by the government. It was printed on a punched card.

Ida Mae Fuller

There is no photo of Fuller getting the first monthly social security check, but this shows her receiving the first cost of living adjustment check, or COLA, several years later.

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Social Security clerk sorts a deck

Each pass through the sorter put just one digit in order. Sorting by one letter required two passes. So, completely sorting by a 20-character name field required that all the cards pass through the machine 40 times.

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Social Security card

This form contains the social security card that each employee received, and the data that was sent back to the office to be processed. IBM provided 1,200 keypunch machines to record the data, which was then processed by 400 accounting machines.

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Automatic check signing machine

Social security checks that were printed by machines still had to be signed – even if only by another machine.

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IBM 405 Alphabetic Accounting Machine

This sophisticated “tabulator” could process 150 cards a minute and keep track of multiple sums while printing data on continuous-sheet forms. This was the first IBM accounting machine able to print all the letters as well as numbers.

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