Jane Yamamoto-Burigsay
Courtesy: Social Security Administration

More than 85 percent of the homes in America have some sort of computer. Millions of people rely on computers daily to access, formulate and store information. People use computers for everything from sharing family pictures to shopping to banking to paying bills. But we weren’t always able to count on the convenience of the computer to make our lives easier.

How did Social Security, one of the world’s largest “bookkeeping operations,” manage to keep records of our nation’s workers before we had computers? How did we match workers with their earnings?

We used a process called the “Visible Index,” which used tiny bamboo strips wrapped in paper that were inserted into metal panels. The panels could be flipped back and forth to view the information on each side. Clerks had to look at each strip to find the exact Social Security number for a specific person. In 1959, when Social Security began converting 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 consistent filing. There were hundreds of thousands of people with the same surname. How did the staff meet the challenge? By knowing the system. Clerks familiar with the Visible Index could locate a specific record within 60 seconds.

The index occupied about 24,000 square feet of floor space and was extremely heavy. No building in the District of Columbia had floors sturdy enough to support the ever-increasing load. These weighty considerations led to Social Security getting its first large-scale computer, an IBM 705. Starting in 1956, the 705 was tasked with handling most of the accounting functions for the agency. It was still humming when it was replaced by a newer generation of computers in 1961.

Back in 1937, there were only about 26 million American workers; today, Social Security processes 260 million workers’ annual wage reports. We have changed over time to meet the challenges of recording workers’ earnings correctly. Today, you don’t need a clerk or to visit a local Social Security office to check your own information — you can check it by either using your existing my Social Security account or by setting one up at www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount.

Changing to meet challenges is just one of the ways we secure your today and tomorrow. You can read more about the history of Social Security at www.socialsecurity.gov/history/index.html.

Jane Yamamoto-Burigsay is Social Security’s public affairs specialist in Hawai‘i.


Question:  Why is there a five-month waiting period for Social Security disability benefits?

Answer: The law states that Social Security disability benefits begin with the sixth full month after the date your disability began. You are not entitled to benefits for any month prior to that. Learn more at our website: www.socialsecurity.gov/disability.

Question:  I recently applied for a replacement Social Security card, but I might be moving before it arrives in the mail. What should I do if I move before it arrives?

Answer:  Once we have verified all your documents and processed your application, it takes approximately 10 to 14 days to receive your replacement Social Security card. If you move after applying for your new card, notify the post office of your change of address and the post office will forward your card to your new address. If you do not receive your card, please contact your local Social Security office. To get a replacement, you will have to resubmit your evidence of identity and United States citizenship, or your lawful immigration status and authority to work. You can learn more at www.socialsecurity.gov.


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