Usually, this meant paper—but considering they barely even had working OCR at the time, it also meant a lot of manual entry after the fact.
Fortunately, IBM had a solution to this problem: A portable device called the Port-A-Punch, which allowed workers in the field to create their own punch cards by hand to use for later. The company showed it off as part of a trade-show tour of cities around the country in the late 1950s.
“Designed to fit in the pocket, Port-A-Punch made it possible to create punched card documents anywhere,” the company explains on its website. “The product was intended for ‘on-the-spot’ recording operations—such as physical inventories, job tickets and statistical surveys—because it eliminated the need for preliminary writing or typing of source documents.”
So, how was this kind of technology used? It found wide use in the world of forestry. For example, in Bessemer, Michigan, an Upper Peninsula city near a number of national forests, the port-a-punch devices were used to track information about Gogebic County’s many trees.
Here’s a description from a 1960 article in the Ironwood Daily Globe:
Information on each plot is being recorded on port-a-punch cards which will in turn be processed through IBM machines for calculations and tabulations.
Three cards are used. (1) a plot card on which plot information is recorded: (2) a tree card on which Is recorded the tree number, the species, the height, the usable length, the diameter, detailed in-formation on soundness, the vigor, the quality, the volume in board feet or cords, the potential cut, the tree status, and the mortality; (3) the correction information is recorded.
Similarly, the USDA Forest Service used Port-A-Punch to track deer and elk pellet plots, using a Fortran-based program to help summarize the collected data.
“When a large number of deer and elk pellet plots are to be counted, the system will reduce office work and eliminate many errors from transposed figures,” a pamphlet explained.
The technology eventually faded from view in favor of things that, y’know, were computers, but not before the U.S. Army attempted to bring it to Vietnam. In 1970, the Army made an inquiry about buying 10,000 Port-A-Punches, only for Big Blue to rebuff the idea because they had stopped making the machine.
The idea of thousands of soldiers using a tiny stylus in the field to make their own punch cards seems absurd enough, even without the war going on at the time.