You might expect a sorter to haves multiple sensors to read the holes from a card and 10 flippers to direct the card into the right bin. But the actual implementation of the early sorters is amazingly simple and clever, using a single sensor and a single electromagnet.
The photo above shows the layout of a standard IBM punched card, which stores 80 characters in 80 columns. The characters are printed along the top of the card and the corresponding holes are punched below. For a digit, each column has a single punch in row 0 through 9 to indicate the digit in that column. (I’ll explain the two additional “zone” rows for alphabetic characters later.)
The diagram below shows how the card sorter works. Cards are fed through the sorter “sideways” starting with the bottom edge (called the “9-edge” because the bottom row is row 9). A small wire brush (red) detects the presence or absence of a hole; the brush will contact the rows in order from 9 to 0. An intact card blocks the wire brush from contacting the metal roller. But if there is a hole in the card, the brush makes contact with the roller through the hole, completing an electrical circuit.
A stack of metal guides (called chute blades) are used to direct the card into the appropriate bin. As a card is fed through the sorter mechanism, it slides under the chute blades as shown in the top illustration. If the brush (red) makes contact through a hole, it trips an electromagnet (purple) that pulls down a metal armature plate (green), allowing the ends of the chute blades to drop down. This causes the card to go above the chute blade rather than underneath it. The key is the chute blades have the same spacing as the rows on the card so the hole is detected just before the card reaches the corresponding blade. (If no hole is detected, the card passes under all the chute blades and into the Reject bin.)
For example, in the diagram above the card has slid under chute blades 9 through 5. The brush makes contact through hole 4, energizing the electromagnet and causing the blades to drop just before the card reaches blade 4. Thus, the card is directed into chute 4.
The chute blades can be seen in the photo below; they are the metal strips running down the center of the sorter between the feed rollers. Each chute blade ends at the appropriate pocket, causing the card to drop into the right location.