How did they man­age So­cial Se­cu­rity with­out com­put­ers?

The Palm Beach Post - Neighborhood Post - Western Palm Beach County - - Front Page - Maria Diaz So­cial Se­cu­rity Maria Diaz is a pub­lic af­fairs spe­cial­ist for the So­cial Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion. If you have So­cial Se­cu­rity ques­tions, call 800-772-1213.

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 earn­ings?

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 about 26 mil­lion Amer­i­can work­ers; but to­day, So­cial Se­cu­rity pro­cesses 260 mil­lion work­ers’ 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 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.

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