The card is read by a brush that makes electrical contact through a hole in the card. The brush is positioned to the proper column by manually turning a knob that rotates the worm screw and moves the brush. As you can see in the photo below, the small brush contacts the metal contact roll.
The photo below shows the drive rollers that feed cards through the sorter, dropping them into the appropriate bins, as directed by the chute blades. The chute blades are barely visible; they are the inch-wide metal strip on the right. The chute blades are stacked together, with just enough room for a card to pass between them.
In order to read a column before selecting a chute, the sorter needed a storage mechanism to remember the 12 hole values. This mechanism is an interesting combination of mechanical switches, vacuum tubes and relays.
Each bit of storage used a 2D21 thyratron tube. This interesting tube is about 2 inches tall. Unlike a regular vacuum tube, it contains low-pressure xenon. If the tube is activated (via its two control grids), the xenon ionizes, causing the tube to remain on until current through it is interrupted. Thus, the tube can be used for storage. Each tube is in a pull-out module that has the necessary resistors at the bottom.
As each card row passes under the brush, the corresponding thyratron is selected. Rotating cams attached to the driveshaft mechanically activate switches at the right point in the cycle to select each thyratron. It seems strange to combine high-speed tubes with mechanically operated switches, but cam-based timing was common in that era. Once the column has been read into the thyratron tubes, the hole pattern is transferred to relays for “processing”.