Carrie Anne looked over my shoulder when I was researching this post. “I love kids with tools.”

These particular kids with tools are using traditional wooden mallets and punches to make a very special set of punchcards, which they’re reading with a Raspberry Pi that creates a CSV file of 0s and 1s, and then interprets that data in the Minecraft universe.


This workshop project is the work of Gemma May Latham, a collaborative maker, and David Whale, who, with Martin O’Hanlon, wrote the most excellent Adventures in Minecraft. Gemma has a particular interest in the Jacquard loom and punchcard technology, and worked with David to make a Pi-based card reader for kids to import data from a piece of paper into the Minecraft world.

Gemma says:

Housed in a laser cut plywood box, and built using a Pro Micro Arduino, IR LEDs and Phototransistors, the reader is set up to read rows of holes with an additional registration hole at the end for patterns where a row has no punched hole. The reader is then attached to a Raspberry Pi via the USB port allowing for the input of designs into Minecraft Pi via Python.

You can build your own reader; Gemma will be putting instructions online soon (we’ll update this post when she does), and all the code you’ll need is available at David’s GitHub.

There are no words for how much we approve of programming that involves hammers.

The project was a big hit at Liverpool MakeFest – Gemma and David will be running the workshop again on a bigger scale at MOSI MakeFest in Manchester in August, so head along if you’d like to have a play yourself.



Ben Nuttall avatar

I heard this was on while we were at MakeFest in Liverpool and didn’t manage to go see it – real shame, it looks awesome. A great idea well executed!

Liz Upton avatar

Quick! Go to Manchester!

Dougie avatar

When I used to punch cards for my day job they had 80 columns of twelve rectangular holes. Punching was done by typing letter/numbers on an IBM Model 029 Duplicating Card Punch not with a mallet and a lump of iron.

Those “Hollerith” cards used in an IBM Model 029 were known as an “IBM Model 5081 Data Storage Device”

The duplicator was useful, when you messed up, you’d duplicate the card just to the error then start typing again.

I used to use the overprinting, never could read the data by staring at the holes.

Nothing changes.

whheydt avatar

The *original* version of the cards developed by Hollerith used 45 columns of round holes. Univac continued using that form of cards into the 1960s. The Cal Computer Club in the Electrical Engineering & Computer Science at UC Berkeley was given a Univac SS-90 (the “SS” standing for “solid state”…that is, not vacuum tubes) in 1969. I drove a 6-ton stake-bed truck up to Fort Bragg to pick up the peripherals…printer and card read/punch unit. Main memory on the system was a drum and when we opened up the back of the (drum) printer, we found ourselves staring at an array of 132 thyratrons to drive the print hammers.

The collective thought was, ‘well…there are plug replacement thyristors on the market…’.

For those unfamiliar with the terminology, electronic devices that end in -tron are vacuum tubes (aka “valves”) and things ending -istor are solid state devices.

Gemma Latham avatar

Great insight into punchcard processes, thanks. This project was actually inspired by the punchcards of the Jacquard loom but has so many parallels with original programming.

J Alway avatar

This makes me want to give Minecraft another try.

Steve Foster avatar

Genius idea. With the introduction of computing to the UK curriculum this year, I was teaching 12 years olds how to convert 8×8 blocky space invader images into binary code, then swapping binary strings between partners to see if they could reproduce the original. This ‘hands-on’ approach would be another (and far more cool) way of doing something similar and then adding Minecraft on top! That’s one to employ next year :-)

Gemma Latham avatar

Love the idea of swapping binary code!

James Savage avatar

Binary Whispers – a variation of the game Chinese Whispers but for binary messages

Chris avatar

So dissappointed that I missed this.

I don’t know how I did, check weekly for events in the Liverpool area. The only one for ages, and I missed it.

I am new to the Pi, and would have been there like a shot.

Ah well

Gemma Latham avatar

Can you make it over to Manchester for the MOSI event? I am based in Cheshire so may be in Liverpool at some point again soon.

wallyware avatar

My gosh, I’m having a flashback. It’s 1974 again and I’m emptying the “bit buckets” from the keypunch machines.

Keith Ellis avatar

“Bit Bucket”

Ahh, the penny has dropped!

Sials avatar

I’m thinking of building a punch card system for writing C code and will use the techniques here to start it.

Rich Alderson avatar

As the old saying has it, “When all you’ve got is a hammer, …”

Bravo! This looks like worlds of fun!

Yvan T. avatar

And surprisingly enough the IBM punch cards are still being sold on eBay as of today.

Anyone in for a touch of nostalgia :)

Andreas Kopp avatar

Awesome! Is there an instructable?

Gemma Latham avatar

Great to see all these lovely comments to the project. We are working on developing instructions for people to recreate their own and will post asap.

exartemarte avatar

I love it – the notion of translating holes punched in paper into shapes in Minecraft is inspired. And the geeks will be able to replicate it all at home and build on it.

I just hope they don’t grow up thinking that when their grandparents used punched cards in the 70’s we used mallets and punches …

James Savage avatar

Some of us did however use punch cards not only to interact with games but to program the IBM Mainframes to play them too.

Keith Carnie avatar

Back in the dark ages, at school in the 70’s I was in one of the first secondary school computing classes. We wrote Fortran using punched cards. Thing was we didn’t have a hole punch, we had to fill in the holes with pencil. Hammer? Luxury!
Much nostalgia, thanks!

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