"My very first job was as a key punch operator at a work study program in high school. Key punch is a device for precisely punching holes into stiff paper cards in specific locations as determined by keys struck by a human operator, who in this case, was me. In many data processing applications, the punched cards were verified by a card verifier, who keyed exacted the same data a second time, checking to see if the second keying and punched data were the same. There was a great demand for key-punch operators, usually women, who worked full time on key punch machines, often with large key punch departments with dozens or hundreds of other operators--all performing data input. And, where I worked in Farmington, Connecticut, it was a very large facility.
Key punches and punched cards were still commonly used for both data and program entry through the 1970s but were rapidly made obsolete by changes in the entry paradigm by the availability of inexpensive CRT computer terminals. Eliminating the step of transferring punched cards to tape or disc, with the added benefit of saving the cost of the cards themselves, allowed for improved checking and correction during the entry process. The development of video display terminals, interactive time share systems and later personal computers, allowed those who originated the data or program to enter it directly instead of writing it on forms to be entered by key punch operators.
These cards were used for data by organizations such as the US Census Bureau and US Social Security Administration as well as for such diverse compilations as hydrographic data for navigation charts, in textile mills for programming looms as well as for entering time card information. Key punching was the kind of work that allowed one to shift their brain into autopilot. When one got good enough at keying, there was little thought required because the fingers would automatically move to the keys based on the numbers the eyes saw. In other words, it provided good experience and also let me know that being tied to a machine was not the kind of job I would be looking for after graduation."
This story was collected in conjunction with the Smithsonian's Museum on Main Street program and its national traveling exhibition "The Way We Worked" when it was on view in Big Piney, Wyoming in 2018. This story is part of the "Be Here: Main Street" story collection, intended to capture Americans' stories about their neighborhoods, waterways, towns, traditions, and personal experiences. Photo of Key Punch Machine by Jkbw (Own work), Wikimedia Commons.