If Data Was Stored on Punch Cards, How Much Space Would Google Need?

Illustration for article titled If Data Was Stored on Punch Cards, How Much Space Would Google Need?

Imagine if all the world's data was still stored on punch cards: we'd be drowning in cardboard. But just how much exactly?

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Fortunately, XKCD's Randall Munroe has taken a stab at working that out. He explains, based on the assumption that Google has a storage capacity of 15 exabytes:

Let's assume Google has a storage capacity of 15 exabytes, or 15,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. A punch card can hold about 80 characters, and a box of cards holds 2000 cards. 15 exabytes of punch cards would be enough to cover my home region, New England, to a depth of about 4.5 kilometers. That's three times deeper than the ice sheets that covered the region during the last advance of the glaciers.

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Illustration for article titled If Data Was Stored on Punch Cards, How Much Space Would Google Need?

That's quite a lot of card. Thank goodness we went digital. [What If?]

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DISCUSSION

Back in the day IBM made a fortune on their punch card tabulator systems, their cash cow since 1890. They didn't want to get into computers at all because of the huge up-front development costs. In an interview Tom Watson Jr. explained:

"The president of Metropolitan Life told me that their customer's punch cards took up three entire floors of the MetLife building in New York. They estimated that within ten years they would take up the entire building as their business grew. He told me they were going to cancel their IBM contacts just as soon as they learned how to do the job with tapes. We were threatened into computers."

The result in 1952 was the IBM 701, their first electronic computer.

Personal note: in the summer of 1967, while all my contemporaries were partying (it was the '60s Summer of Love) I personally processed seven million punch cards through one of those machines, converting Montgomery Ward's credit operation from punch card to tape.