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Office Supply Fetish: Nerdy History of Tabs & Index Cards

Yay! Tabs!

Technology Review: Keeping Tabs

Here's a fascinating history of a small but influential idea that's touched the lives of every librarian, accountant, office supply fetishist, and web surfer: **the tab**.

The original tab signaled an information storage revolution and helped enable everything from management consulting to electronic data processing.

The tab's story begins in the Middle Ages, when the only cards were gambling paraphernalia. Starting in the late 14th century, scribes began to leave pieces of leather at the edges of manuscripts for ready reference. But with the introduction of page numbering in the Renaissance, they went out of fashion.

Apparently, the modern index card really hit its stride after file cards -- and the "randomly accessible, infinitely modifiable arrangement of data" they afforded -- became the province of a company founded by Melvil Dewey (yes, that Dewey):

His cards were made to last, made from linen recycled from the shirt factories of Troy, NY. His card cabinets were so sturdy that I have found at least one set still in use, in excellent order. Dewey also standardized the dimension of the catalogue card, at three inches by five inches, or rather 75 millimeters by 125 millimeters. (He was a tireless advocate of the metric system.)

And for this magical mashup of index cards and the little popup dividers that separate and organize them, we can apparently thank the ingenuity of one James Gunn.

The tab was the idea of a young man named James Newton Gunn (1867–1927), who started using file cards to achieve savings in cost accounting while working for a manufacturer of portable forges. After further experience as a railroad cashier, Gunn developed a new way to access the contents of a set of index cards, separating them with other cards distinguished by projections marked with letters of the alphabet, dates, or other information.

I'd love to see James Burke do a whole series just on information, media, and the physical inventions that brought us to where we are. I'm a total dork for stuff like this.

Carissa Thorp's picture

Bit of a co-incidence

I recently "tickled" these links to see what comes out of this event: Notebooks and Note-takers: da Vinci to Darwin. Ann Blair is going to be one of the speakers.

Articulate (my original source) and the event's home page.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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