A plugboard or control panel (the term used depends on the application area) is an array of jacks or sockets (often called hubs) into which patch cords can be inserted to complete an electrical circuit. Control panels are sometimes used to direct the operation of unit record equipment, cipher machines, and early computers.
The earliest machines were hardwired for specific applications. Control panels were introduced in 1906 for the Hollerith Type 1 Tabulator (). Removable control panels were introduced with the Hollerith (IBM) type 3-S tabulator in the 1920s. Applications then could be wired on separate control panels, and inserted into tabulators as needed. Removable control panels came to be used in all unit record machines where the machines use for different applications required rewiring.
IBM removable control panels ranged in size from 6 1/4" by 10 3/4" (for machines such as the IBM 077, IBM 550, IBM 514) to roughly one to two feet (300 to 600 mm) on a side and had a rectangular array of hubs. Plugs at each end of a single-conductor patch cord were inserted into hubs, making a connection between two contacts on the machine when the control panel was placed in the machine, thereby connecting an emitting hub to an accepting or entry hub. For example, in a card duplicator application a card column reading (emitting) hub might be connected to a punch magnet entry hub. It was a relatively simple matter to copy some fields, perhaps to different columns, and ignore other columns by suitable wiring. Tabulator control panels could require dozens of patch cords for some applications.
Tabulator functions were implemented with both mechanical and electrical components. Control panels simplified the changing of electrical connections for different applications, but changing most tabulator's use still required mechanical changes. The IBM 407 was the first IBM tabulator that did not require such mechanical changes; all the 407's functions were electrically controlled and were completely specified by the application's control panel and carriage tape.
For most machines with control panels, from collators, interpreters, to the IBM 407, IBM manuals describe the control panel as "directing" or "automatic operation was obtained by...". The control panels of calculators, such as the IBM 602 and IBM 604, that specified a sequence of operations, were described as being programs.
Unit record equipment was typically configured for a specific task using a removable control panel. The electrical connections of the various components in the unit record machine were presented on the panel, and connections between them were determined by the wiring, with the actual connections made when the panel was inserted into the machine and locked in place. Perhaps the closest modern analog is the field-programmable gate array, where a fixed number of logic components are made available and their interconnection wiring is determined by the user.
Wiring a unit record control panel required knowledge of the machine's components and their timing constraints. The components of most unit record machines were synchronized to a rotating shaft. One rotation represented a single machine cycle, during which punched cards would advance from one station to the next, a line might be printed, a total might be printed and so on. The cycles were divided into points according to when the rows on a punched card would appear under a read or punch station. On most machines, cards were fed face down, 9-edge (bottom edge) first. Thus the first point in a card cycle would 9-time, the second 8 time and so on to 0-time. The times from 9 to 0 were known as digits. These would be followed by 11 time and 12 time, also known as zones.
In a read station, a set of 80 spring wire brushes pressed against the card, one for each column (the 407 read station, constructed without brushes, held the card stationary and could read a card multiple times, each time generating the same impulses as would be generated by an 80 spring wire station). When a hole passed under the brush, the brush would make contact with a conductive surface beneath the card that was connected to an electrical power source and an electrical pulse, an impulse in IBM terminology, would be generated. Each brush was connected to an individual hub on the control panel, from which it could be wired to another hub, as needed. The action caused by an impulse on a wire depended on when in the cycle it occurred, a simple form of time division multiplexing. Thus an impulse that occurred during 7-time on a wire connected to the column 26 punch magnet would punch a hole in row 7 of column 26. An impulse on the same wire that occurred at 4-time would punch a 4 in column 26. Impulses timed in this way often came from read brushes that detected holes punched in cards as they passed under the brushes, but such pulses were also emitted by other circuits, such as counter outputs. Zone impulses and digit impulses were both needed for alphanumeric printing. They could both be sent on a single wire, then separated out by relay circuits based on the time within a cycle.
The control panel for each machine type presented exit (output) and entry (input) hubs in logical arrangements. In many places, two or more adjacent common hubs, would be connected, allowing more than one wire to be connected to that exit or entry. A few groups of hubs were wired together but not connected to any internal circuits. These bus hubs could be used to connect multiple wires when needed. Small connector blocks called wire splits were also available to join three or four wires together, above the control panel. Several are visible in the photo of an IBM 402 panel.
The capabilities and sophistication of unit record machine components evolved over the first half of the 20th century and were often specific to the needs of a particular machine type. The following hub groupings were typical of later IBM machines:
A plugboard was used on the famous Enigma machine; it was not removable. In this case the plugboard acted as a "fourth rotor" in the rotor machine's workings. Plugboard wirings were part of the "day settings" that specified which rotors to insert into which slot, and which plugboard connections to make. In practice the plugboard did improve the security of the cypher being generated, but as it did not change with every keypress, unlike the rotors, its impact was limited. See Cryptanalysis of the Enigma.
The first version of the ENIAC computer was programmed via cabling, switches and plugboards. ENIAC's cabling was later reconfigured to use the existing Function Tables data ROM memory as program ROM memory (the switches and plugboards continued to be used in the reconfigured ENIAC).
The IBM 305 RAMAC used a plugboard for all program compare operations and all branch operations. Other plugboards controlled card reading and punching, the printer and the console typewriter. Many peripheral devices, e.g. the IBM 711 and 716, for first and second generation IBM computers, including the IBM 700/7000 series and the IBM 650, were based on unit record machines and included plugboards.
Plugboards remained in use in specialty-purpose computers for some time, acting as a read only memory (ROM) but able to be manually reprogrammed in the field. One example is the Ferranti Argus computer, used on the Bristol Bloodhound missile, which feature a plugboard programmed by inserting small ferrite rods into slots, in effect creating a read-only core memory by hand.