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


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


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


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


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.

Digital Equipment Corporation Educational Basic


Digital Equipment Corporation sold small timesharing systems that ran on their PDP-8 and PDP-11 minicomputers. One market sector that was very important to them was educational computing. Schools, being pressed for cash, found it difficult to afford either computer terminals for interactive computing or keypunches for batch use. So, DEC came out with optical-mark cards to support BASIC programing. This particular card is for a PDP-11 BASIC implementation, judging by the notation in the left margin. The card was printed by IBM, judging by the notation in the lower right margin.

This card uses a nonstandard encoding, with a 1 out of 34 code for keywords that shares some columns with the statement number, and an alphabetic encoding that is completely incompatible with the IBM's Hollerith code that was the industry standard.

This card was not hand-marked, but rather, was run through a printer that added marks and the notation B03 of B07. This suggests that the card might have been part of a software distribution, perhaps an example program that could be used to demonstrate the system. The text "bubbled in" on this card says:

1   0 DIM A(10,10)
A high resolution scan is available.

A University of Iowa card


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


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.)

A Monash University Cobol Card

 [Monash University COBOL card]

Monash University, in Clayton Australia, used this optical-mark card so that students learning COBOL could use pencils instead of keypunches. The card, designed (and copyrighted) by the New South Wales Institute of Technology, probably dates from September 1978 (a guess based on the numbers 9 78 on the right edge of the card. This copyright is still in force, although the card was entirely obsolete within fifteen years because of the rise of the personal computer.

The card uses an interesting self-interpreting code scheme that is similar in spirit (but not detail) to the IBM educational FORTRAN card. As with that card, positions on the left of the card are reserved for statement names, while the remainder of the card is divided into 16 fields, each of which could be used to "bubble in" one letter, digit or punctuation mark. Individual bubbles are provided for 24 letters or digits. The others are coded with two bubbles, either the bubble above and below the indicated letter (as on IBM's card) or the bubbles to the left and right of the indicated letter. A high resolution scan is available.

A Tuskeegee Institute Standard Exam Card

 [Tuskegee exam answer card, side 1]

 [Tuskegee exam answer card, side 2]

This two-sided card has space for answers to 126 5-way multiple-choice questions, plus a 4-digit machine-readable student number and space for human-readable name. Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) is a historically black land-grant institution in Alabama. Although a small school, it is big enough to have had custom-printed exam cards. High resolution scans are available of side 1 and of side 2.

These cards have timing marks along the bottom edge typical of cards printed to be read on a Chatsworth optical-mark card reader.

This card was given to me by Fred W. Stone, who taught at Tuskegee. Tuskegee installed an IBM 1620 computer in late 1961, but since Chatsworth Data Corporation was incorporated in 1969, this card is probably from after that date.