By Brenda Brown
Social Security Public Affairs Specialist in Fayetteville, NC
More than 85 percent of American homes 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 and paying bills. But, we haven’t
always been 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
We used a process called the “Visible Index” that 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 Index
could locate a specific record within 60 seconds.
The Index took 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 later generation of computers in 1961.
Back in 1937, there were only about 26 million American workers; but today, Social Security
processes 260 million worker’s annual wage reports. We have changed over time to meet the
challenges of recording worker’s earnings correctly. Today, you don’t need a clerk or a visit to a
local Social Security office to check your own information. That’s right. You can check yours
now by either using your existing my Social Security account or by setting one up at
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.