A Scientific Census

The Botanical Society of The British Isles the Atlas of the British Flora

The punched-card technology used to automate offices was also used to create distribution maps of every species of plant and flower on the British Isles. Information on the species found in each 10km square plot was gathered and punched onto cards, and then printed as dots on a map to show where the species was located.

A Scientific Census

Punched cards got their first big test in America’s 1890 census. Half a century later, they made possible another census: a comprehensive catalogue of British flora and fauna.

Documenting the island’s ecology demanded technology both portable and reliable. Punched cards fit the bill. In the late 1940s, the Powers-Samas Company developed a system using 40-column cards. Researchers in the field wrote directly on the cards. Afterwards, clerks punched in the data for processing.

The results were used to create the Atlas of the British Flora in 1962, and other surveys.

Operator at sorter

To the American eye, these Powers-Samas machines, designed for smaller punched cards, looked like miniature versions of IBM equipment.

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Operator at Powers-Samas punch

The system used to compile data for the Atlas of The British Flora used 40-column cards that were less than half the size of a traditional IBM punched card.

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40-column Punched Cards

These 40-column cards recorded the data for the Atlas of the British plant atlas - by first being written on in the field, and then being punched in the office with holes recording that information.

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Printing card punch

Computing pioneer Maurice Wilkes consulted on the design of this printer, which was used to produce the Atlas of The British Flora in 1962.

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40-column Card Punch

Powers-Samas competed in the UK with the British Tabulating Machine Company, a reseller and manufacturer of Hollerith’s US-designed equipment. The competitors merged in 1959. This particular machine was the one used to punch cards for the Atlas of The British Flora.

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Model 406 Card Sorter

Cards punched for the Atlas of The British Flora had to be put in order before they were sent to the printer. This sorter could handle more than 300 cards a minute.

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