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How records were kept before computers

More than 85 percent of American homes have some sort of computer. Millions of people rely on computers daily to access, formulate and store information. But, we haven’t always been able to count on the convenience of the computer to make our lives easier.

How did Social Security, one of the world’s largest bookkeeping operations, manage to keep records of our nation’s workers before we had computers? How did we match workers with their earnings?

It used a process called the “Visible Index” that used tiny, bamboo strips wrapped in paper that were inserted into metal panels. The panels could be flipped back and forth to view the information on each side. Clerks had to look at each strip to find the exact Social Security number for a specific person. In 1959, when Social Security began converting information to microfilm, there were 163 million individual strips in the Visible Index.

The workers’ names were filed alphabetically by surname using a phonetic pronunciation code to ensure consistent filing. Clerks familiar with the Index could locate a specific record within 60 seconds.

The Index took about 24,000 square feet of floor space and was extremely heavy. No building in the District of Columbia had floors sturdy enough to support the ever-increasing load. These weighty considerations led to Social Security getting its first large-scale computer, an IBM 705 in 1956.

Back in 1937, there were only about 26 million American workers; but today, Social Security processes 260 million worker’s annual wage reports.

You can read more about the history of Social Security at

Nicole Tiggemann, Social Security spokesperson.

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