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.

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

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