A warning printed on IBM punch cards.

The punch cards technology is rather old, but up to the 1930s it was confined to big offices, public or private. The older cards were completely blank, readable only by machines such as the Hollerith, even if some experienced clerks claimed to be able to read them as quickly as the mechanical scanners. There was no warning label because the computer wizards of the time were expected to know how to handle them.

During the thirties, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration started issuing "punch card checks"; Social Security followed a few years later, and for a long while all federal checks were punched. Those cards could be issued to "clueless newbies", so it was necessary to explain how to keep them in good working conditions.

  • Do not fold or bend this card (cards for student registration at the University of Iowa)
  • Do not fold, tear or mutilate this card (IBM sales brochure, 1930s)
  • Do not fold, tear or destroy (IBM sales brochure, 1930s. How are you supposed to read a card after it has been destroyed?)

The origins of the canonical form "do not fold, spindle or mutilate" are lost in the mists of time.

The warning against folding is clear - creases in the punch card could jam the reader.

A spindle is a spike used to hold pieces of paper; now it can be found in restaurants, where it's used to gather the orders or the bills, but a few decades ago it was a common office implement. When it was full, the clerk would usually remove the paper, run a piece of string through the holes, tie the bundle and archive it.

The "mutilate" part is intriguing, since the word is usually associated to living things and to an evil intent. It seems that the bureaucrat who penned the warning was afraid that the user could vent on the card the frustration caused by the institution that issued the card. Anyway, the Cummins-Chicago Corporation marketed the Carditioner, a device that could recondition mutilated punch cards.

The counterculture picked up the warning, twisting it into a slogan against depersonalization; a poster for Earth Day 1970 showed a picture of the Earth taken from space with the caption "Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate"; some Berkeley students used buttons or stickers with the motto "Human being: do not fold, tear or mutilate". The phrase was also chosen as the title for a book of advice to parents (the book was shaped like a punch card - with a corner chopped off!) and pops up several times in Infocom games (thanks TenMinJoe!)

Nowadays it's used as a general warning not to mess with something. "No user serviceable parts inside" just doesn't have the same kick.

(My first nodeshell rescue. I was intrigued by the title, and after stumbling on the 'shell for the umpteenth time I decided to check what Google had to say...)

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