Many people rely on a computer to access online information and to store personal information. Remember that box of photos that you found in the back of the closet on a shelf? The one that had the pictures from your high school prom? Now, people share those photos almost instantly because they are stored on their computer or smartphone. (No more hiding those embarrassing moments from the world.)
So, how did Social Security, who keeps records of the earnings of most of the nation’s workers, do it without computers? Social Security’s accounting system has been called the largest bookkeeping operation in history, but how did they associate every worker with his own earnings? How did they credit the self-employment earnings to a specific individual?
Social Security used a process called the “Visible Index”. In the picture above, you can see millions of tiny, bamboo strips wrapped in paper and inserted into metal panels. The panels were supported on metal frames that allowed them to be flipped back and forth to view the information on each side. Clerks had to scan each strip to locate the specific Social Security number for a specific individual. By 1959, when Social Security began converting the 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 uniform filing. Records indicate that there were hundreds of thousands of individuals with the same surname. Even with that challenge, clerks familiar with the Index could locate a specific individual’s record within 60 seconds.
But the Visible Index took up over 24,000 square feet of floor space. It was heavy, too. So heavy that no building in Washington had floors sturdy enough to hold that weight. The records had to be kept in an old Coca-Cola factory in Baltimore.
These considerations about weight and space led to Social Security’s adoption of its first large-scale, general purpose computer, an IBM 705. The unassembled machine reached Social Security in August 1955, but it took a long time for it to be assembled and tested by IBM technicians before being certified as fully functional. Use of the machine began in March 1956. The 705 gradually took over most of the accounting functions for the agency. It remained in use until the 1960s when a later generation of electronic computers replaced it.
If weight and space were a consideration in 1937 when there were about 26 million workers, just imagine trying to process the 260 million worker’s annual wage reports and the $457 billion in benefits we pay today on paper.
Social Security has changed over time to meet the challenges of recording worker’s earnings correctly, so your earnings record will be correct. Check yours now by either using your existing my Social Security account or setting up one at www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount .
You can read more about the history of Social Security at https://www.ssa.gov/history/index.html .