Optical Mark Cards

Part of the Punched Card Collection
by Douglas W. Jones
THE UNIVERSITY OF IOWA Department of Computer Science

A numeric convention ballot

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This ballot was issued as part of the credentials packet to a delegate to the 1988 Iowa Democratic Convention. These ballots were used to elect delegates to the national convention and to national party committees. Each candidate was assigned a number, and the ballot allowed convention delegates to mark the numbers of the candidates they preferred for each of up to 5 offices. Elections carried out on the convention floor were not by secret ballot, so each delegate's ballots were pre-punched with the delegate ID and ballot number. A high resolution scan is available.

A yes-no convention ballot

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This ballot was issued as part of the credentials packet to a delegate to an Iowa Democratic Convention in the late 1980's. These ballots were used for votes on platform planks in those cases where voice votes and standing divisions of the house were deemed insufficient. This card is designed to carry less information than any other card in this collection, but it is not just one bit of information; elections carried out on the convention floor were not by secret ballot, so each delegate's ballots were pre-punched with the delegate ID and ballot number. A high resolution scan is available.

A Hewlett Packard Educational BASIC card

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In the early 1970's, Hewlett Packard was a leader in providing computers to public school systems interested in teaching computer programming. While Hewlett Packard emphasized use of timesharing systems, the provisions they made for batch operation using optical mark readers lowered the price per student to something that many public school systems could afford. The black bars between marking positions provide a clock signal to the card reader, allowing it to find the marking positions. A high-resolution scan is available.

With conventional punched-cards, you punch your program on the card using a keypunch. Users of mark-sense cards have come up with interesting terminology to describe the analogous act of programming on such cards. One of the more interesting descriptive phrases is "we bubbled in our programs on cards", referring to filling the oval bubbles that are commonly used as marking targets on mark-sense forms. I first heard this usage in 2002 from Dr. Glen B. Cook.

A Hewlett Packard 9820 Program and Data card

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In the late 1960's and early 1970's, Hewlett Packard was a leading maker of programmable desk calculators, competing with Olivetti and Compucorp. The HP9820 calculator offered, as an option, programming on cards using an optical mark reader. The card provided space for the symbolic program, encoded as a sequence of calculator keypresses, just as on today's programmable pocket calculator, and then spaces for the machine readable translations of each program step into a binary pattern of marks. A medium-resolution scan and a high-resolution scan are available.

A University of Iowa card

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The University of Iowa was a pioneer in the development of optical mark reading technology (Professor Lindquist developed the first practical mark-sense reader in order to score the ACT college admissions test he developed), so it is natural that, as tome point, the University of Iowa experimented with using mark-sense technology to substitute for keypunches. The form of this card may well predate optical mark sensing, since IBM's first mark-sense readers used electrographic technology where marks were sensed by their electrical conductivity. Nonetheless, the condition of this card suggests that it was from the late 1960's. By that date, IBM had largely abandoned electrographic mark sensing in favor of optical mark sensing.

These cards were printed by IBM and feature an almost impossible to read self-interpreting legend written beside each marking position. These cards have columns marked for the convenience of Fortran programmers, and unlike the HP cards, there is no clock pattern on the card to help the card reader locate the punch positions. It is quite likely that these cards were intended for use by students in intro computer science courses. The University of Iowa Department of Computer Science was founded in 1965, when such a use would have made sense. A high resolution scan is available.

An IBM Educational FORTRAN card

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This IBM 40904/40908 card might have been read on the same card readers that might have read the above card, but it uses a completely different character encoding that is completely incompatible with the coding used on conventioal punched cards. A high resolution of scan is available, along with a a scan of the flip side of the card. (Thanks to an Internet correspondent for the scans of this card, a card used in the early 1970s by high-school students to program an IBM 1130.)