Punched tape or perforated paper tape is a form of data storage that consists of a long strip of paper in which holes are punched. It developed from and was subsequently used alongside punched cards, differing in that the tape is continuous.
It was used throughout the 19th and for much of the 20th centuries for programmable looms, teleprinter communication, for input to computers of the 1950s and 1960s, and later as a storage medium for minicomputers and CNC machine tools.
Paper tapes constructed from punched cards were widely used throughout the 19th century for controlling looms. Perforated paper tapes were first used by Basile Bouchon in 1725 to control looms. However, the paper tapes were expensive to create, fragile, and difficult to repair. By 1801, Joseph Marie Jacquard had developed machines to create paper tapes by tying punched cards in a sequence for Jacquard looms. The resulting paper tape, also called a "chain of cards", was stronger and simpler both to create and to repair.
This led to the concept of communicating data not as a stream of individual cards, but as one "continuous card" (or tape). Many professional embroidery operations still refer to those individuals who create the designs and machine patterns as "punchers" even though punched cards and paper tape were eventually phased out in the 1990s. In 1842, a French patent by Claude Seytre described a piano playing device that read data from perforated paper rolls.
In 1880s, Tolbert Lanston invented the Monotype System, which consisted of a keyboard (typesetting machine) and a composition caster. The tape, punched with the keyboard, was later read by the caster, which produced lead type according to the combinations of holes in 0, 1, or more of 31 positions. The tape reader used compressed air, which passed through the holes and was directed into certain mechanisms of the caster. The system went into commercial use in 1897 and was in production well into the 1970s, undergoing several changes along the way.
In the 21st century, use of punched tape is very rare. It may still be used in older military systems and by some hobbyists. In computer numerical control (CNC) machining applications, very few people still use tape. However, some modern CNC systems still measure the size of stored CNC programs in feet or meters, corresponding to the equivalent length if punched on paper tape.
Data was represented by the presence or absence of a hole at a particular location. Tapes originally had five rows of holes for data. Later tapes had six, seven and eight rows. An early electro-mechanical programmable calculating machine, the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator or Harvard Mark I, used paper tape with 24 rows. A row of smaller sprocket holes that were always punched served to feed the tape, originally using a wheel with radial teeth called a sprocket wheel. Later optical readers used the sprocket holes to generate timing pulses. The sprocket holes are slightly to one side, making it clear which way to orient the tape in the reader and dividing the tape into unequal sides. The bits on the narrower side of the tape are generally the least significant bits, when the code is represented as numbers in a digital system.
Tape for punching was 0.00394 inches (0.1 mm) thick. The two most common widths were 11/16 inch (17.46 mm) for five bit codes, and 1 inch (25.4 mm) for tapes with six or more bits. Hole spacing was 0.1 inch (2.54 mm) in both directions. Data holes were 0.072 inches (1.83 mm) in diameter; feed holes were 0.046 inches (1.17 mm).
Most tape-punching equipment used solid punches to create holes in the tape. This process created "chad", or small circular pieces of paper. Managing the disposal of chad was an annoying and complex problem, as the tiny paper pieces had a tendency to escape and interfere with the other electromechanical parts of the teleprinter equipment.
A variation on the tape punch was a device called a Chadless Printing Reperforator. This machine would punch a received teleprinter signal into tape and print the message on it at the same time, using a printing mechanism similar to that of an ordinary page printer. The tape punch, rather than punching out the usual round holes, would instead punch little U-shaped cuts in the paper, so that no chad would be produced; the "hole" was still filled with a little paper trap-door. By not fully punching out the hole, the printing on the paper remained intact and legible. This enabled operators to read the tape without having to decipher the holes, which would facilitate relaying the message on to another station in the network. Also, there was no "chad box" to empty from time to time. A disadvantage to this mechanism was that chadless tape, once punched, did not roll up well, because the protruding flaps of paper would catch on the next layer of tape, so it could not be rolled up tightly. Another disadvantage, as seen over time, was that there was no reliable way to read chadless tape by optical means employed by later high-speed readers. However, the mechanical tape readers used in most standard-speed equipment had no problem with chadless tape, because it sensed the holes by means of blunt spring-loaded sensing pins, which easily pushed the paper flaps out of the way.
Text was encoded in several ways. The earliest standard character encoding was Baudot, which dates back to the 19th century and had five holes. The Baudot code was never used in teleprinters. Instead, modifications such as the Murray code (which added carriage return and line feed), Western Union code, International Telegraph Alphabet No. 2 (ITA 2), and American Teletypewriter code (USTTY), were used. Other standards, such as Teletypesetter (TTS), FIELDATA and Flexowriter, had six holes. In the early 1960s, the American Standards Association led a project to develop a universal code for data processing, which became known as ASCII. This seven-level code was adopted by some teleprinter users, including AT&T (Teletype). Others, such as Telex, stayed with the earlier codes.
Punched tape was used as a way of storing messages for teletypewriters. Operators typed in the message to the paper tape, and then sent the message at the maximum line speed from the tape. This permitted the operator to prepare the message "off-line" at the operator's best typing speed, and permitted the operator to correct any error prior to transmission. An experienced operator could prepare a message at 135 words per minute (WPM) or more for short periods.
The line typically operated at 75WPM, but it operated continuously. By preparing the tape "off-line" and then sending the message with a tape reader, the line could operate continuously rather than depending on continuous "on-line" typing by a single operator. Typically, a single 75WPM line supported three or more teletype operators working offline. Tapes punched at the receiving end could be used to relay messages to another station. Large store and forward networks were developed using these techniques.
Paper tape could be read into computers at up to 1,000 characters per second. In 1963, a Danish company called Regnecentralen introduced a paper tape reader called RC 2000 that could read 2,000 characters per second; later they increased the speed further, up to 2,500 cps. As early as World War II, the Heath Robinson tape reader, used by Allied codebreakers, was capable of 2,000 cps while Colossus could run at 5,000 cps using an optical tape reader designed by Arnold Lynch.
When the first minicomputers were being released, most manufacturers turned to the existing mass-produced ASCII teleprinters (primarily the Teletype Model 33, capable of ten ASCII characters per second throughput) as a low-cost solution for keyboard input and printer output. The commonly specified Model 33 ASR included a paper tape punch/reader, where ASR stands for "Automatic Send/Receive" as opposed to the punchless/readerless KSR – Keyboard Send/Receive and RO – Receive Only models. As a side effect, punched tape became a popular medium for low-cost minicomputer data and program storage, and it was common to find a selection of tapes containing useful programs in most minicomputer installations. Faster optical readers were also common.
Binary data transfer to or from these minicomputers was often accomplished using a doubly encoded technique to compensate for the relatively high error rate of punches and readers. The low-level encoding was typically ASCII, further encoded and framed in various schemes such as Intel Hex, in which a binary value of "01011010" would be represented by the ASCII characters "5A". Framing, addressing and checksum (primarily in ASCII hex characters) information helped with error detection. Efficiencies of such an encoding scheme are on the order of 35–40% (e.g., 36% from 44 8-bit ASCII characters being needed to represent sixteen bytes of binary data per frame).
In the 1970s, computer-aided manufacturing equipment often used paper tape. Paper tape was an important storage medium for computer-controlled wire-wrap machines, for example. A paper tape reader was smaller and less expensive than hollerith card or magnetic tape readers. Premium black waxed and lubricated long-fiber papers, and Mylar film tape were invented so that production tapes for these machines would last longer.
In the 1970s through the early 1980s, paper tape was commonly used to transfer binary data for incorporation in either mask-programmable read-only memory (ROM) chips or their erasable counterparts EPROMs. A significant variety of encoding formats were developed for use in computer and ROM/EPROM data transfer. Encoding formats commonly used were primarily driven by those formats that EPROM programming devices supported and included various ASCII hex variants as well as a number of proprietary formats.
A much more primitive as well as a much longer high-level encoding scheme was also used, BNPF (Begin-Negative-Positive-Finish). In BNPF encoding, a single byte (8 bits) would be represented by a highly redundant character framing sequence starting with a single ASCII "B", eight ASCII characters where a "0" would be represented by a "N" and a "1" would be represented by a "P", followed by an ending ASCII "F". These ten-character ASCII sequences were separated by one or more whitespace characters, therefore using at least eleven ASCII characters for each byte stored (9% efficiency). The ASCII "N" and "P" characters differ in four bit positions, providing excellent protection from single punch errors. Alternative schemes were also available where "L" and "H" or "0" and "1" were also available to represent data bits, but in both of these encoding schemes, the two data-bearing ASCII characters differ in only one bit position, providing very poor single punch error detection.
NCR of Dayton, Ohio, made cash registers around 1970 that would punch paper tape. Sweda made similar cash registers around the same time. The tape could then be read into a computer and not only could sales information be summarized, billings could be done on charge transactions. The tape was also used for inventory tracking, recording department and class numbers of items sold.
Punched paper tape was used by the newspaper industry until the mid-1970s or later. Newspapers were typically set in hot lead by devices like Linotype machines. With the wire services coming into a device that would punch paper tape, rather than the Linotype operator having to retype all the incoming stories, the paper tape could be put into a paper tape reader on the Linotype and it would create the lead slugs without the operator re-typing the stories. This also allowed newspapers to use devices, such as the Friden Flexowriter, to convert typing to lead type via tape. Even after the demise of Linotype and hot lead typesetting, many early phototypesetter devices utilized paper tape readers.
If an error was found at one position on the six-level tape, that character could be turned into a null character to be skipped by punching out the remaining non-punched positions with what was known as a “chicken plucker". It looked like a strawberry stem remover that, pressed with thumb and forefinger, could punch out the remaining positions, one hole at a time.
Vernam ciphers were invented in 1917 to encrypt teleprinter communications using a key stored on paper tape. During the last third of the 20th century, the National Security Agency (NSA) used punched paper tape to distribute cryptographic keys. The eight-level paper tapes were distributed under strict accounting controls and read by a fill device, such as the hand held KOI-18, that was temporarily connected to each security device that needed new keys. NSA has been trying to replace this method with a more secure electronic key management system (EKMS), but as of 2016, paper tape is apparently still being employed. The paper tape canister is a tamper-resistant container that contains features to prevent undetected alteration of the contents.