Edge-notched cards or edge-punched cards are an obsolete technology used to store a small amount of binary or logical data on paper index cards, encoded via the presence or absence of notches in the edges of the cards. The notches allowed efficient sorting and selecting of specific cards matching multiple desired criteria, from a larger number of cards in a paper-based database of information. In the mid-20th century they were also known by commercial names such as Cope-Chat cards, E-Z Sort cards, and McBee Keysort cards.
Edge-notched cards are a manual data storage and manipulation technology used for specialized data storage and cataloging applications through much of the 20th century. An early instance of something like this methodology appeared in 1904. While there were many variants, by the mid-20th century a popular version consisted of 5-by-8-inch (13 by 20 cm) paperboard cards with holes punched at regular intervals along all four edges, a short distance in from the edges. The center of the card might be blank space for information to be written, or contain a pre-printed form, or contain a microform image in the case of edge-notched aperture cards.
To record data, the paper stock between a hole and the nearest edge was removed by a special notching tool. The holes were assigned a meaning dependent upon a particular application. For example, one hole might record the answer to a yes/no question on a survey, with the presence of a notch meaning "yes". More-complex data was encoded using a variety of schemes, often using a superimposed code which allows more distinct categories to be coded than the number of holes available.
To allow a visual check that all cards in a deck were oriented the same way, one corner of each card was beveled, much like Hollerith punched cards. Edge-notched cards, however, were not intended to be read by machines. Instead, they were manipulated by passing one or more slim needles through selected holes in a group of cards. As the needles were lifted, the cards that were notched in the hole positions where the needles were inserted would be left behind as rest of the deck was lifted by the needles. Using two or more needles produced a logical and function. Combining the cards from two different selections produced a logical or. Quite complex manipulations, including sorting were possible using these techniques.
Needle cards are index cards with text, written by hand or typewriter, that have a line of prepunched holes along one or more sides. By cutting or punching away (notching out) the paper between a hole and the edge of the card, the card is associated with a category. By putting long knitting needles through certain holes in a deck of such cards, lifting and shaking gently, cards that belong to a combination of categories can be selected. This tool is less useful for data sets larger than 10,000 records.
Affectionately referred to as "The Knitting Needle Computer", these database-like systems were popular sometime in the 1960s and 1970s. Science teachers may still use these as a teaching tool for relational databases. Indexed card systems can be made with index cards and a hole punch.
In her book Parti-colored Blocks for a Quilt, writer Marge Piercy described how she used needle cards instead of a notebook:
I keep neither a journal nor a notebook. I have a memory annex which serves my purposes. It uses edge-notched cards. Edge-notched cards are cards which have holes around the borders as opposed to machine punch cards which are punched through the body. The cards are sorted with knitting needles. I have a nice sophisticated system which I call the "General Practitioner."
- Kilgour, Frederick G. (15 February 1939). "A new punched card for circulation records". Library Journal. 64 (4): 131–133. An article introducing McBee Keysort edge-notched cards for use in library circulation records. The author, a technology early adopter, later became a pioneer in library computerization.
- US patent 2261719A, Roger, Connor & Donald A. Nevin, "Device for sorting card records", issued 4 November 1941, assigned to McBee Co. One of several patents granted to the McBee Company for devices related to McBee Keysort edge-notched cards.
- Lawson, Murray G. (April 1948). "The machine age in historical research". The American Archivist. 11 (2): 141–149. doi:10.17723/aarc.11.2.k10wv0736708370q. JSTOR 40288654. An article that describes the use of McBee Keysort edge-notched cards in historical research.
- Casey, Robert S., ed. (1958) . Punched cards: their applications to science and industry (2nd ed.). New York: Reinhold Pub. Corp. OCLC 574357. Edge-notched cards are mentioned in multiple chapters in this collection.
- Ellsworth, Russell S. (October 1951). "New horizons with microfilm". American Documentation. 2 (4): 221–228. doi:10.1002/asi.5090020407. An article that describes the use of microform images in edge-notched aperture cards.
- Meteer, James W. (June 1953). "Continuous inventory management and growth studies". Journal of Forestry. 51 (6): 410–414. doi:10.1093/jof/51.6.410. An article that describes the use of edge-notched cards in forest inventory.
- Anderson, G. L. (October 1953). "The McBee Keysort system for mechanically sorting folklore data". Journal of American Folklore. 66 (262): 340–343. doi:10.2307/536730.
- Wells, William D. (January 1956). "The use of McBee Keysort in content analysis". American Psychologist. 11 (1): 53. doi:10.1037/h0040329.
- Nonconventional scientific and technical information systems in current use (Technical report). Washington, DC: Office of Science Information Service, National Science Foundation (NSF). 1966 . OCLC 177482159. The four editions of this report published by the NSF between 1958 and 1966 contained a section that listed examples of specific scientific and technical information systems that used edge-notched cards.
- Sadove, Max S.; Levin, Myron J. (March 1958). "The Illinois E-Z Sort anesthesia record card". Anesthesiology: The Journal of the American Society of Anesthesiologists. 19 (2): 178–187. PMID 13521370. An article about use of E-Z Sort cards for anesthesia records.
- Ward, Denis H. (June 1959). "The use of edge-punched cards in statistical computation". Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Series C (Applied Statistics). 8 (2): 104–113. doi:10.2307/2985546. JSTOR 2985546.
- Bourne, Charles P. (April 1961). "The historical development and present state‐of‐the‐art of mechanized information retrieval systems". American Documentation. 12 (2): 108–110. doi:10.1002/asi.5090120205.
There has been a tremendous increase in the use of edge-punched cards during the last ten years.
- Engelbart, Douglas C. (April 1961). "Special considerations of the individual as a user, generator, and retriever of information" (PDF). American Documentation. 12 (2): 121–125. doi:10.1002/asi.5090120207. Engelbart discussed his use of edge-notched cards for personal information management at the Annual Meeting of the American Documentation Institute in 1960, while pointing out that it seemed "inevitable, for instance, that your documentation systems will go in the direction of using cooperative man-computer efforts", citing J. C. R. Licklider's "Man-Computer Symbiosis", also published in 1960.
- Halmann, Martin M. (July 1961). "A simple multi-sorter for separating edge-punched cards". Journal of Chemical Documentation. 1 (2): 78–78. doi:10.1021/c160002a019. An article showing an edge-sorting tool in use.
- Kent, Allen; Geer, Harriet A. (January 1961). "Searching chemical information mechanically". Searching the chemical literature. Advances in chemistry. 30. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society. pp. 270–281 (273). doi:10.1021/ba-1961-0030.ch027. ISBN 9780841200319. OCLC 457810627.
If it seems relatively certain that the total file will not exceed 10,000 cards, the Keysort or edge-notched cards may fill the needs.
- Hoffer, Joe Ralph (1966) . Manual for a hand-sort punch-card system for indexing social welare publications (3rd ed.). Columbus, Ohio: National Conference on Social Welfare. OCLC 2164234.
- Reichmann, Felix (1961). Notched cards. The state of the library art. 4. New Brunswick, NJ: Graduate School of Library Service, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. OCLC 576330.
- Engelbart, Douglas C. (1962). "Some possibilities with cards and relatively simple equipment". Augmenting human intellect: a conceptual framework. Menlo Park, CA: Stanford Research Institute. OCLC 8671016. Engelbart discussed his use of edge-notched cards to partially model Vannevar Bush's Memex concept for intelligence augmentation, first described in Bush's "As We May Think" (1945).
- Davis, Emma Lou (1965). "Three applications of edge-punched cards for recording and analyzing field data". Memoirs of the Society for American Archaeology (19): 216–226. JSTOR 25146687.
- Bryan, John H. D. (June 1966). "A multi-purpose information retrieval system based on edge-notched cards". BioScience. 16 (6): 402–407. doi:10.2307/1293685. JSTOR 1293685. An article describing a system of edge-notched cards that "has been formulated to serve more general purposes and has sufficient capability to deal with the entire spectrum of biology".
- "Indecks Research Deck needle sort punch card kit". Computer History Museum. 1966. Retrieved 2011-03-29.
- Hoff, Wilbur (May 1967). "A health information retrieval system for personal use". Journal of School Health. 37 (5): 251–254. doi:10.1111/j.1746-1561.1967.tb00505.x. PMID 5182183. Hoff describes a personal knowledge base for health professionals that uses edge-notched cards.
- Lewis, Orme; Ulrich, Paul G. (July 1968). "Information retrieval without computers". American Bar Association Journal. 54 (7): 676–681. JSTOR 25724469.
A bane of lawyers is that frantic search, sometimes with only the barest of clues, for research done in the past but pertinent to a matter at hand. Messrs. Lewis and Ulrich describe a simple and inexpensive system they have developed, using the McBee keysort system and the West digest topics and key numbers, that has proved to be an excellent retrieval process.
- Dyke, Freeman H. (October 1969). "Edge-notched cards". A manual on methods for retrieving and correlating technical data. ASTM special technical publication. 468. Philadelphia: American Society for Testing and Materials. pp. 19–22. doi:10.1520/STP468-EB. ISBN 0803100205. OCLC 47463.
- Bakewell, K. G. B. (1972). "Figure 67: An edge-punched card (George Anson & Co. Ltd.)". A manual of cataloguing practice. International series of monographs in library and information science. 14. Oxford; New York: Pergamon Press. p. 241. ISBN 0080166970. OCLC 424250.
- Newberry, William F. (15 March 1981). "Edge-notched cards: prematurely buried". Library Journal. 106 (6): 624–625. An article that examines edge-notched cards as an inexpensive alternative to computers.
- Piercy, Marge (1982). Parti-colored blocks for a quilt. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. p. 27–28. ISBN 0472063383. OCLC 8476006.
- Manning, Phil R.; DeBakey, Lois (1987). "The personal information center". Medicine, preserving the passion (1st ed.). New York: Springer-Verlag. pp. 57–71 (59). doi:10.1007/978-1-4757-1954-3_3. ISBN 0387963618. OCLC 13580831. A chapter that mentions edge-notched cards as part of personal information management in medicine.
- Kilgour, Frederick G. (1998). "Origins of coordinate searching". In Hahn, Trudi Bellardo; Buckland, Michael Keeble. Historical studies in information science. Medford, NJ: Published for the American Society for Information Science by Information Today. pp. 107–115. ISBN 1573870625. OCLC 39765449.
- Cady, Susan A. (1999). "Microfilm technology and information systems". In Bowden, Mary Ellen; Hahn, Trudi Bellardo; Williams, Robert Virgil. Proceedings of the 1998 Conference on the History and Heritage of Science Information Systems. ASIS monograph series. Medford, NJ: Published for the American Society for Information Science and the Chemical Heritage Foundation by Information Today. pp. 177–186. ISBN 1573870803. OCLC 42022214.
Early aperture cards were sometimes mounted on McBee Keysort cards that could be notched on the margins to indicate an index term and then sorted manually with tools resembling knitting needles.
- Williams, Robert V. (2002). "Punched cards: a brief tutorial". IEEE Annals of the History of Computing: Web Extra. 24 (2). Retrieved 2006-10-30.
- Black, Alistair (December 2007). "Mechanization in libraries and information retrieval: punched cards and microfilm before the widespread adoption of computer technology in libraries". Library History. 23 (4): 291–299. doi:10.1179/174581607x254785.
- Kelly, Kevin (17 June 2008). "One dead media". kk.org. Retrieved 2008-06-18. An article on edge-notched cards that mentions their use in the production of The Last Whole Earth Catalog in the 1970s, among other projects. Kelly observed that as a medium edge-notched cards were "dead", but some commenters on the article suggested otherwise.
- Sneesby-Koch, Ann (31 January 2013). "Me and Mr. McBee". neh.gov. Office of Digital Humanities, National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Retrieved 2018-04-08. An article that describes the digitization of the NEH's collection of McBee Keysort cards, which contained the NEH grant database of over 12,000 grant records from 1965 to 1980.