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Herman Hollerith

Herman Hollerith

Herman Hollerith (1860-1929) was the inventor of the punched card tabulating machine-the precursor of the modern computer-and one of the founders of modern information processing. His machine was used to gather information for the 1890 census more efficiently. Hollerith's company later became part of International Business Machines (IBM).

Herman Hollerith was born to German immigrants, George and Franciska (Brunn) Hollerith, on February 29, 1860 in Buffalo, New York. He began his university education at the City College of New York at the age of 15, and graduated from the Columbia School of Mines with distinction in 1879. While at Columbia, Hollerith took the standard course of study which required both classes and practical work. As an engineering student, he took chemistry, physics, and geometry, as well as courses in surveying and graphics, and surveying and assaying. Hollerith was also required to visit local industries, such as metallurgical and machine shops, in order to understand how they functioned.

Shortly after graduation, Hollerith got a job at the U.S. Census Bureau as an assistant to his former teacher, William Petit Trowbridge. He worked as a statistician, compiling information on manufacturers. His article, "Report on the Statistics of Steam and Water-Power Used in the Manufacture of Iron and Steel," was published in 1888 in the Census Bureau's Report on Power and Machinery Employed in Manufacture. His work revealed the problems of dealing with large amounts of data by hand. The 1880 census took seven and a half years to complete. Because of the large numbers of people immigrating to the U.S., the 1890 and 1900 censuses were expected to take much longer.

At the Census Bureau, Hollerith met Kate Sherman Billings, daughter of Dr. John Shaw Billings, head of the Department of Vital Statistics. In addition to his work at the Bureau, Billings designed seven medical institutions and the New York Public Library, was chair of the Carnegie Institution, member of the National Board of Health, and oversaw publication of the Index Medicus, which contained abstracts of medical publications. Because Billings liked to help talented young men, and because Hollerith was dating his daughter, Billings took an interest in him.

It was Billings who was thought to have provided Hollerith with the inspiration for the punched card tabulating machine. Hollerith acknowledged near the end of his life the help that Billings had given him. While Billings denied providing much assistance, it is clear that he relied heavily on Billing's design concept. Hollerith thought he could design the machine, and later offered to include Billings in the project.

In 1882, Hollerith became an instructor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Because he disliked working with students, he left to go to St. Louis, Missouri, where he experimented with and designed an electrically activated brake system for railroads. The railroads, however, chose a steam-actuated brake system which had been designed by Westinghouse. In 1884, Hollerith got a job with the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., where he remained until 1890.

Invented the Tabulating Machine

Hollerith continued to experiment with the elements for a punched card tabulating machine. Billings had recommended that he study a Jacquard loom, a mechanical loom or weaving machine, for inspiration. Jacquard had realized that weaving required a number of repetitive tasks which could be automated. "He conceived a system that relied on stiff pasteboard cards with various patterns of punched holes. At each throw of the shuttle, a card was placed in the path of the rods. The pattern of holes in the card determined which rods could pass through and thus acted as a program for the loom. This control system allowed for flexibility and various levels of complexity in the patterns," noted Mark Russo, in The World's First Statistical Engineer.

From the Jacquard loom, Hollerith deduced the pattern for his first attempt at constructing his tabulating machine. He used a single, continuous paper feed with holes punched in it, something like a player piano. The position of the hole on a line of the paper determined what it stood for. For example, a hole in one position indicated a male, in another a female; a hole in another position indicated that the person was born in the U.S., one in another, the person was a foreigner. As the roll of paper was fed through the tabulating machine, the holes would pass over a drum, completing an electrical circuit for each hole. Counters connected to the machine registered each electrical current caused by a hole as a hit for that statistic. Because it used electricity, Hollerith's tabulating machine anticipated the advent of computers. Also, the hole punching system is analogous to the binary system of zeros and ones, which is found in the digital data storage of computers. The continuous strip which Hollerith initially used was similar to the tapes used in early computers.

The problems with Hollerith's continuous paper strip were that it was easy to tear, it was difficult to find a specific piece of information on the strip, and it was almost impossible to re-sort information. For these reasons, Hollerith decided to use a card similar to the Jacquard cards used on the looms. The cards, which came to be called Hollerith cards, were small stiff-paper cards, the size of one dollar bills. The advantage of the cards was their relatively small size, and the fact that they could be sorted or re-sorted, and corrected. The drum was replaced by a press which sandwiched the cards. Pins over the holes would pass through the cards to be submerged in mercury, which created electrical circuits that yielded hits on counters.

In 1884, Hollerith was awarded his first patent and a contract to test the merits of his new machine. In spite of some problems, the test of mortality statistics at the Baltimore Office of Registration was successful enough that the machine was subsequently used in New Jersey and New York City for similar purposes. In 1885, Hollerith's machine was first used by the U.S. Navy. This military use gave Hollerith added prestige, increased sales, and the financial resources needed to make improvements.

The 1880 census was still not completed by 1885. Hollerith felt that his machine would speed the counting of the 1890 census. The Census Bureau was worried that they might have to count two censuses at the same time, because of the length of time it took to count them. The Bureau held a competition which proved Hollerith's machine much faster than any of its competitors. By the time of the 1890 census, Hollerith had made more improvements. He increased the categories which the machine could count, and adding a mechanical feeding device and a sorting box with a number of compartments. With Hollerith's machine, the counting for the 1890 census was completed in six weeks. The census was finished in two and a half years rather than the seven and a half years needed for the previous one. Hollerith had saved the U.S. five million dollars in expenses.

On September 15, 1890, Hollerith married Lucia Beverly Talcott. The couple subsequently had six children: Lucia, Nannie, Virginia, Herman, Richard, and Charles. Also in 1890, he was awarded the Elliott Cresson medal from the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia for the outstanding invention of the year.

Expanded Uses of Machine

By 1891, Hollerith's machines were being used to gather census information in Canada, Austria, and Norway. Between 1890 and 1900, he expanded the commercial uses of his machines to include railroad freight statistics and agricultural data. In 1896, Hollerith started the Tabulating Machine Company, to make his machines and sell the cards needed for them. Although business was good, Hollerith was suffering from emotional exhaustion. His employees never knew what he was going to do next. It was rumoured that he had extra strong doors installed in his home so that they would not fly off their hinges during his fits. His emotional state led to a falling out with the director of the census, which now handled much more statistical data for the government. After this incident, Hollerith devoted himself entirely to commercial work.

Never a man to leave things as they were, Hollerith immediately found new markets for his machines in the business world. Within 18 days after his machines were removed from the Census Bureau, he had placed them at the shops of the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad and at the Denver Gas & Electric Co. Between 1905 and 1909, he substantially developed his business as he won over a number of large accounts and introduced an updated version of his machines.

In 1911, his company merged with two other companies, the Computing Scale Company of America and the International Time Recording Company, to become the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company. Hollerith stayed at the merged company as a consulting engineer until he retired in 1921. In 1924, under the leadership of Thomas Watson, Sr., the merged company changed its name to International Business Machines (IBM). The machine that Hollerith developed was the initial reason for IBM's success. In his last years, Hollerith suffered from heart disease. He died at home in Washington, D.C. on November 17, 1929.

Further Reading

Austrian, Geoffrey D., Herman Hollerith: Forgotten Giant of Information Processing, Columbia University Press, 1982.

Bruns, Leonard C., Science & Technology Firsts, Gale, 1997.

Debus, A.G., ed., World's Who's Who in Science, 1968.

Dictionary of American Biography, Volume XI, Supplement One.

Datamation, February 1982.

"The World's First Statistical Engineer," University of Rochester, Department of History, (March 17, 1999). □

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Hollerith, Herman

Hollerith, Herman

American Inventor and Engineer

Born on February 29, 1860, in Buffalo, New York, Herman H. Hollerith was a prolific inventor and a pioneer in data processing. His punched-card tabulating machines, although primitive by modern standards, provided the first viable method of processing vast amounts of information in a timely and cost-effective way. When he died on November 17, 1929, he left behind a technology that, with continued improvement, would eventually lead to the development of the modern computer.

Hollerith was the son of German immigrants and one of five children. His father died in an accident when Hollerith was only seven, and to support the family, his mother kept a millinery shop, making one-of-a-kind hats for ladies of fashion. At barely nineteen, Hollerith graduated with distinction from Columbia University's School of Mines. One of his professors, who was also a consultant for the U.S. Bureau of the Census, introduced Hollerith to Dr. John Shaw Billings, head of Vital Statistics, who hired the young engineer to assist in the statistical analysis of the 1880 census. Over dinner one evening, Billings discussed the tabulating process and wondered whether it could be mechanized, a question that fired Hollerith's imagination and transformed his life.

Although Hollerith left Washington, D.C., in 1882 to become an instructor of mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he never abandoned the concept of automated tabulation. At MIT, he developed the basic ideas for his machine and the flair for invention that would ultimately result in thirty-one patents.

In 1883 Hollerith received an appointment as an assistant examiner in the U.S. Patent Office and returned to Washington, D.C. As an engineer and statistician, he knew little, if anything, about patent law, but as a fledgling inventor he understood its importance. Eager to learn, he used his three years at the Patent Office to develop a real expertise.

On September 23, 1884, Hollerith filed the first patent application for his tabulating machine. His initial design approach used rolls of perforated paper tape, but these were soon replaced by punched cards . Years before, he had watched a train conductor punch tickets that contained brief descriptions of each passenger, including hair and eye color. On the basis of this recollection, he adopted the punched card as a standardized unit for recording and processing information.

Punched cards had been introduced in the textile industry more than a century earlier by Joseph-Marie Jacquard (17521834), who had designed a mechanical loom. In Jacquard's loom, the hooks lifting the warp threads were controlled by cards perforated to the desired pattern. Hollerith's system used a similar approach but added a new ingredientelectricity. Information was recorded by punching holes on a card with twenty-four vertical columns and twelve punching places in each one. The cards were punched, sorted, and fed by hand into a machine, where electrical contacts were made through the holes as the cards passed through. Selected data were counted on electromechanical tabulators.

Hollerith's card processing system was first used in 1886 to tabulate census returns in Baltimore, Maryland, and subsequently in New Jersey and New York City. In 1889, when automated data tabulation systems were evaluated for the 1890 census, the Hollerith Electrical Tabulating Machine won the assignment. Consequently, the 1890 census was counted twice as fast as the previous one, and more than a billion holes were punched to record information from 63 million people.

For independent studies in developing Hollerith's tabulating system, the Columbia School of Mines waived its usual requirements and awarded Hollerith a doctor of philosophy degree in 1890. On September 15 of that year, he married Lucia Talcott, the daughter of a noted civil engineer. The couple had six children: Lucia; Herman, Jr.; Charles; Nan; Richard; and Virginia.

During the decades that followed, Hollerith continued to modify and improve his machines, which were used again in the 1900 census. By that time, they were used in Europe as well. To maximize commercial opportunities, he formed the Tabulating Machine Company in 1896 and successfully promoted his machines to insurance companies, department stores, and railroads.

In 1911 the Tabulating Machine Company became part of the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, a small conglomerate that was renamed the International Business Machines (IBM) Corporation in 1924. Hollerith continued as a consultant and director until 1914, when he retired to a farm in Virginia's Tidewater country. On November 17, 1929 he died of a heart attack at the age of sixty-nine, but his concept, although improved over the years, remained the basis of the information processing industry well into the 1940s.

see also Generations, Computers; IBM Corporation; Mainframes; Tabulating Machines; Watson, Thomas J., Sr.

Karen E. Esch


Austrian, Geoffrey D. Herman Hollerith: Forgotten Giant of Information Processing. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Bernstein, Jeremy. The Analytical Engine: ComputersPast, Present, and Future. New York: Random House, 1963.

Goldstine, Herman H. The Computer from Pascal to von Neumann. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Luebbert, William F. "Hollerith, Herman." In Encyclopedia of Computer Science and Engineering, ed. Anthony Ralston and Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983.

Morison, Elting E. From Know-How to Nowhere: The Development of American Technology. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

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Hollerith, Herman


Herman Hollerith (18601929), an American engineer and inventor, made a major breakthrough that paved the way for the invention of the modern digital computer. He invented a punch-card system in 1890, first used widely by the federal government, that was the beginning of all modern data processing in business. His invention of the punch-card tabulating system, still used in many voting machines in the United States, became the foundation of a company that evolved into the International Business Machines Company (IBM).

Hollerith was born in 1860, and raised in Buffalo, New York. In 1879 he graduated at the age of 19 from Columbia University with a degree in mining engineering. He then went to work for the United States Census Bureau's Division of Vital Statistics, compiling mountains of census information into readable data. At the time, information was processed by hand. It was costly, time consuming, and very slow.

In the late 1880s the Census Department determined that the upcoming 1890 census would include data from over 62 million Americans. The department's traditional census tabulating measures were so time consuming that it had little hope of compiling the information into any useful format until well after the 1900 census. By that time the data would be of little value. Working on a solution, Herman Hollerith designed a machine to tabulate the large amounts of census data in a shorter time period. His automatic machine was based on electrical impulses, which transmitted only when holes in punched cards passed over the electrical contacts. The signals were then fed into electrical-mechanical tabulators to be counted, like those in old-fashioned adding machines. Hollerith's tabulating machine quickened the Census Department's ability to compile data and, for the first time, allowed the census data to record new details, such as the number of doctors working in a particular state who were married with one child and owned their own home.

Hollerith patented later models of his machine, ones that could count, add, sort, and which used automated card-punching to make the right holes in the cards to provide the right electrical signals in the right places. He sold his first machine to the United States Army to help in their compilation of medical statistics. He then obtained a contract from the Census Bureau to provide machines to be used in the census count of 1890.

According to evaluations made of the value of his early tabulating machines, Hollerith's tabulators saved the Census Bureau $5 million for the 1890 census and did in one year what would have taken eight years of hand-tabulation. Hollerith's invention was the beginning of modern data processing. His humble "press" machine, using paper cards with punched holes in them, became the beginning of an electronic way for all businesses to efficiently keep track of thousands of business transactions.

It did not take long for businesses and industries to find uses for Hollerith's tabulators. Business could keep track, easily and quickly, of the amount of stock they had in different departments and keep more adequate supplies on hand for consumers. The business tabulator was an important advancement in business, especially for large companies that dealt with mass markets where significant amounts of information needed to be processed quickly.

When Hollerith was 36 years old, he had enough demand for his tabulating machines to found the Tabulating Machine Company, where he continued to improve his machines. In 1911 Hollerith sold his share of this company, retiring in his mid-fifties. The company name changed, and by 1924 it merged with others to become the first giant in computer tabulating companiesIBM, the International Business Machine Corporation.

Herman Hollerith's modest punch-card press tabulator changed the face of American business by allowing for the creation of high-speed, efficient ways to keep track of all aspects of business transactions, enabling businesses to grow significantly without losing control of daily information crucial to the maintenance of business.

Hollerith died in 1929 at the age of 70, having no idea he would later be regarded by many as the grandfather of the modern computer.

See also: Computer Industry, International Business Machines


Austrian, Geoffrey. Herman Hollerith, Forgotten Giant of Information Processing. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Bohme, Frederick G. 100 Years of Data Processing: The Punchcard Century. Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Data User Services Division, 1991.

Cortada, James W. Historical Dictionary of Data ProcessingTechnology. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Fisher, Franklin M. and John J. McGowan. Folded, Spindled, and Mutilated: Economic Analysis and U.S. v. IBM. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983.

Watson, Thomas J. A Business and Its Beliefs: The Ideas that Helped Build IBM. New York: McGraw Hill, 1963.

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"Hollerith, Herman." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . 19 Jul. 2017 <>.

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Hollerith, Herman

Hollerith, Herman

American Mathematician and Inventor 18601929

The presidential race between Texas Governor George W. Bush and U.S. Vice-President Al Gore in November 2000 illustrated the importance of accurately counting every vote. The hand recounts also revealed how collecting and interpreting vast amounts of data by hand can pose many difficulties,

including, but not limited to, error and bias. Herman Hollerith's invention of a tabulating machine was the first attempt to solve these problems.

During the 1880 U.S. census, the logistical problems of gathering and tabulating great amounts of data quickly enough for the data to remain useful was first recognized. In fact, the data from the 1880 census took nearly seven years to tabulate, far too long for the results to accurately reflect statistics that were needed for determining seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The U.S. Census Bureau devised a competition in which a prize would be awarded for the best method of tabulating census data.

Herman Hollerith, a former statistician for the U.S. Census Bureau and professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, won the competition. His work had led him to an interest in the mechanical manipulation of data. It seemed to lend itself perfectly to being automated. He edged out two competitors who invented "chip" and "slip" systems with his "card" system. His tabulating machine was put to use in the very next census in 1890.

Hollerith's "integrating machine" punched holes into stiff paper cards similar to the ones he had seen conductors using on trains. By punching holes next to the appropriate descriptors on the card, such as "large nose" or "dark hair," the conductor could create a profile of each passenger. Hollerith designed his cards to be the same size as dollar bills so that storage cabinets for currency could also be used for the "Hollerith cards."

Hollerith's system was essentially a binary system. "Punched" and "not punched" corresponded to the 1s and 0s we are familiar with in the twenty-first century's digital data storage systems. The cards were run under a group of brushes that completed electrical circuits when a "punch" was encountered. A corresponding mechanical counter then advanced for each punch, and in this way counted the total.

The Hollerith tabulating device allowed the 1890 census to be completed in only six weeks and at a savings of $5 million, an almost unbelievable improvement. In addition, data could be sorted and organized based on selected characteristics with little additional effort. More data than ever before could be collected and analyzed.

Fueled by the success of his machine, Herman formed the Herman Hollerith Tabulating Machine Company in 1896. However, his machine was so expensive the Census Bureau developed their own system for the 1910 census. Competition forced Hollerith to merge with another company, and the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company was created in 1911. Thomas J. Watson later reorganized it into International Business Machines (IBM) Corporation. The success of Hollerith's machine was the basis of IBM's success and has led him to be remembered as a founder of information processing.

see also Mathematical Devices, Mechanical; census.

Laura Snyder


Maxfield, Clive "Max," and Alvin Brown. Bebop Bytes Back: An Unconventional Guide to Computers. Madison, AL: Doone Publications, 1998.

Parkinson, Claire L. Breakthroughs: A Chronology of Great Achievements in Science and Mathematics. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1985.

Internet Resources

O'Connor, J. J., and E. F. Robertson. "Herman Hollerith." School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St. Andrews, Scotland. July 1999. <>.

Russo, Mark. "Herman Hollerith: The World's First Statistical Engineer." <>.

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Hollerith, Herman

Herman Hollerith (hō´lərĬth), 1860–1929, American inventor, b. Buffalo, N.Y. After graduating from Columbia Univ. (B.S., 1879), he worked on the U.S. Census of 1880. Intrigued by the problem of tabulating vast amounts of data, he developed over the next several years a card that could be represent data through a series of punched holes and a number of machines for punching and tabulating the cards. In 1896 Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company which, through mergers and acquisitions, grew into the International Business Machines Company.

See G. Austrian, Herman Hollerith (1982).

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Hollerith, Herman

Hollerith, Herman (1860–1929) US computer pioneer. In 1890, he invented a mechanical tabulating machine that used punched cards to record and process data. These gave rise to the Hollerith code (later employed by early computers) that uses 12 bits per alphanumeric character. Hollerith's firm, the Tabulating Machine Company, later expanded to become International Business Machines (IBM).

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