Engineer and Inventor
Herman Hollerith made a major contribution to the development of the modern digital computer with his tabulating machine. An early model of his invention was first used in 1890 to tabulate medical statistics gathered by the United States Army. That same year, the United States Census Bureau adopted Hollerith's tabulating system for its 1890 census. By the time the 1900 census was completed using a revised model, the tabulating machine had saved American taxpayers $5 million and did in less than two years what would have taken eight years of hand tabulating. This was the beginning of modern data processing. The company Hollerith formed to manufacture the tabulating machine eventually became International Business Machines (IBM).
Herman Hollerith was born February 29, 1860, in Buffalo, New York. His parents, George and Franciska Hollerith, were German immigrants. After attending City College of New York, Hollerith continued his studies at the Columbia University School of Mines. His first full-time job was for the United States Census Bureau, which was gearing up for the 1880 census. Hollerith came to the census job with some statistical experience; as a student at Columbia, he had worked for the statistician William Petit Trowbridge. At the Census Bureau, he met John S. Billings, director of the Census Bureau's division of vital statistics, who first suggested to Hollerith that a mechanical means should be invented to count the vast and rapidly increasing quantities of raw data that was generated in their work.
After the 1880 census, Hollerith worked as an instructor in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then he moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he experimented with railroad braking systems. He traveled by train to St. Louis and a few years later he traveled by train back to Washington, D.C. He could not help but notice that the conductor would punch various bits of information into each passenger's ticket, including place of boarding and destination. In Annals of the History of Computing, Friedrich W. Kistermann points out that in the same way the conductor used a paper ticket, "Hollerith's first test of his tabulating system used punched cards, one for each person, as the data medium, with the holes being punched with a simple conductor's hand punch."
In 1884 Hollerith returned to Washington, D.C., to work for the U.S. Patent Office. During his off hours, he began to build a tabulating machine, hoping it would be ready in time for the 1890 census. Initial tests of the punch card system were made in the recording and counting of mortality statistics in several large cities. Hollerith's invention had to compete against two others, but he was the clear winner since his system took less than half the time required by the two competing systems. Using his invention as the basis of a dissertation, Hollerith received a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1890, and the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia honored Hollerith as the person with the outstanding invention of the year. That same year, 1890, Hollerith married Lucia Talcott.
Hollerith worked for the Census Bureau from 1890 until 1896, when he established his own company. During his lifetime, Herman Hollerith secured 30 U.S. patents, plus many from foreign governments. He also worked on several other inventions, including an electrically activated brake system for trains. During competitive testing, though, his system was beaten by a steam-activated system invented by Westinghouse. In 1929 he died at the age of 69 from heart disease, and was survived by his wife and their six children.
Herman Hollerith was not the first to design a mechanical calculator. That honor goes to Charles Babbage, an English mathematician. Babbage conceived of a mechanical calculator in 1823, but he was unable to raise the funds needed to manufacture the machine. Babbage incorporated a system of punch cards into his design similar to that used in the Jacquard loom, invented in 1745 in France. Jacquard's loom used punched cards to control the weaving of the cloth so that any desired pattern could be obtained automatically.
Initially called a press, Hollerith's tabulating machine incorporated an electric sensing device that recorded the number of holes at specific locations in nonconductive material (material that does not carry an electrical charge). Signals were transmitted only when electrical current passed through a hole in the card, making a closed circuit. Rolls of perforated tape were used as the non-conducting medium, but later Hollerith switched to cards that were the same size as dollar bills of that time; this change allowed him to incorporate money storage cases in his equipment.
Hollerith's tabulating machine worked in a three-step process. First, it punched holes in small cards in a variety of patterns based on data keyed in by an operator; each hole represented a different response to a question (for example, age in a census survey, number of pounds of rice in a railroad freight car, cause of death in a mortality survey). Next, the operator ran the cards through the machine's sorter, which distributed them according to relevant categories (for example, all persons ages 20-29 in one pile). In the third step, while the cards were being sorted, they were also counted by an accounting machine as a way of keeping track of the results for each category.
Electro-mechanical tabulators, like those in oldfashioned adding machines, counted the signals. Using this method, raw data could be tabulated for numerous categories (as many as fit on the card) at the same time and with great speed. Dial counters were installed on the machine, one counter associated with each hole on the punched card. Each counter advanced by one unit whenever an electrical signal passed through the hole in the card corresponding to that dial. Each dial had two hands, much like a clock, with the longer hand representing ten-digit numbers and the shorter hand representing one-digit numbers. Operators recorded the totals for each dial at the end of every processing session.
For the 10 years between the l890 census and the l900 census, Hollerith continued to perfect the tabulating machine. During that period, his system was adopted for census processing in Canada, Norway, and Austria. In 1891 his system was used by the British for their census. European scholars noticed the significance of Hollerith's invention sooner than those in the United States. Technical articles about the tabulating machine were published throughout Europe in five different languages. In 1895 Hollerith went to Berne, Switzerland, to comment on a technical paper about his invention to a gathering of members of the International Statistics Institute.
Upon his return to the United States in 1896, Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company (TMC) in New York City, and continued to improve on his basic machine, while manufacturing and selling both the machines and the cards. Besides recording and counting, newer models included a mechanical feeding device, automated card punching, and the ability to sort and add. These machines, with their new enhancements, were soon used to record railroad freight statistics and agricultural yields.
Patents and sales of the tabulating machine and other inventions made Hollerith a millionaire. In 1911 TMC merged with two other companies (Computing Scale Company of America and International Time Recording Company) to become the Calculating-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR). In 1914 CTR hired a new manager, Thomas J. Watson, a man already well-known in business circles. He had begun working for John Patterson at National Cash Register (NCR) in 1895 and by 1910 was general sales manager. NCR then transferred Watson to a second company set up to compete with NCR; this company's real purpose, though, was to eliminate NCR's competitors. In 1912 both Watson and Patterson were convicted of violating the Sherman Antitrust Act; Patterson promptly fired Watson. Watson never admitted any wrongdoing, and in 1915 the government dropped its case with the threat of a jail sentence now past, Watson was made president of CTR.
Watson understood immediately the importance of Hollerith's work and that CTR's future lay in its tabulating division. Scales and clocks were useful items, according to Watson, but the United States would soon be a nation of office workers in need of basic tools like the tabulating machine. He pushed hard during his first five years at the company to make CTR the industry leader in tabulating design. Remington Rand, Burroughs, and NCR were CTR's competitors, but from the beginning CTR steered clear of mass-produced, low-priced office products like typewriters and simple adding machines, concentrating instead on the design of large tabulating systems for government agencies and growing national businesses.
Chronology: Herman Hollerith
1860: Born in Buffalo, New York.
1880: Began working for the United States Census Bureau.
1890: Finished construction of his tabulating machine and won a contract with the Census Bureau.
1896: Established Tabulating Machine Company.
1911: Firm became Calculating-Tabulating-Recording Company.
1914: Hired Thomas J. Watson as manager.
1921: Retired; sales reached $13 million.
1924: Company changed name to International Business Machines Corporation (IBM).
1929: Died in Washington, D.C.
CTR's salespeople were trained to be well dressed and courteous; they were told that they were selling not just a product but a service. A completed sale was just the beginning of the salesman's job; in effect, he had to become a partner in the customer's business, and together they designed a tabulating system for that particular organization. In a pattern that still holds today, many customers remained loyal because they trusted and, to an extent, relied upon the CTR salesman's knowledge of their business. The sales staff actually dominated the company, ensuring that new technology was based on the needs of customers and not the reverse.
The business practices that propelled IBM into a billion dollar company began early in CTR's history. The company focused on large-scale, custom-built systems, an inherently less competitive segment of the business. Most of the tabulating machines were leased rather than sold, which was more profitable. Agreements dating back to the mid-1910s with chief competitor Remington Rand prevented the two companies from falling into competitive squabbles. When Hollerith retired in 1921, sales were at $13 million and CTR was the clear leader in its specialized field of tabulating machines. The company's name was changed to International Business Machines Corporation in 1924. By 1932, 85 percent of the tabulating machines in use were made by IBM.
Social and Economic Impact
In both Europe and the United States near the end of the nineteenth century, growing urban centers were propelling the growth of businesses with national distributions. The ability to monitor and analyze large batches of data was increasingly critical to the success of these enormous businesses, especially the railroads and food processors. The tabulating system invented by Herman Hollerith, besides being the direct ancestor of modern data processing systems, completely revolutionized the work of both statisticians and businessmen, who were now able to analyze huge quantities of data.
Versions of Hollerith's card tabulating machine still have a place in modern data processing. They are widely used in voting machines. Hollerith's machines were actually the first digital devices: information was represented by the presence or absence of holes on cards. The development of computers applies the same digital principle, but modern machines have memory. So Hollerith's invention was the forerunner of the computer, a device which affects virtually every facet of modern life.
Sources of Information
"Herman Hollerith." World of Invention. Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.
Kepos, Paula, ed. International Directory of Company Histories. Detroit: St. James Press, 1992.
Kistermann, Friedrich W. "The Invention and Development of the Hollerith Punched Card." Annals of the History of Computing, 1991.
Reid-Green, Keith S. "The History of Census Tabulation." Scientific American, February 1989.
Starr, Harris E., ed. Dictionary of American Biography, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1944.
Van Doren, Charles, ed. Webster's American Biographies. Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Co., 1979.
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.
Bruns, Leonard C., Science & Technology Firsts, Gale, 1997.
Debus, A.G., ed., World's Who's Who in Science, 1968.
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"The World's First Statistical Engineer," University of Rochester, Department of History, http://www.history.rochester.edu/steam/hollerith/first.htm (March 17, 1999). □
Herman Hollerith (1860–1929), 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 companies—IBM, 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
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 Processing—Technology. 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.
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 (1752–1834), 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 ingredient—electricity. 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
Bernstein, Jeremy. The Analytical Engine: Computers—Past, 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.
American Inventor, Businessman and Statistical Engineer
Herman Hollerith's invention of a machine able to tabulate information encoded in the form of holes punched in paper cards dramatically speeded up the 1890 United States census, and laid the foundation for the explosion of information processing in the twentieth century. The business Hollerith founded in 1896, the Tabulating Machine Company, later became a major component of the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM).
The child of German immigrants, Hollerith was born in Buffalo, New York, on February 29, 1860. He entered college at age 15, attending both City College of New York and Columbia School of Mines. He graduated from the School of Mines in 1879 with a degree in engineering.
That same year Hollerith moved to Washington, D.C., to accept a position as a special agent in the United States Census Office. The Census Office was responsible for counting the country's population every 10 years, and for deriving employment, income, and other statistics from the census reports. Hollerith proved a gifted statistician, and within a few months his $600 annual salary was raised to $800. His experiences in the tabulation of the 1880 census would alter the course of his life. A brief stint at the United States Patent Office would likewise prove valuable to him later on.
In 1882 Hollerith left the Census Office and joined the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an engineering instructor. While teaching mechanical engineering, among other subjects, Hollerith turned his mind to the question of increasing the efficiency with which census information could be tabulated.
Beginning in 1884, Hollerith devoted himself to his invention and to building a business around it. He applied for and was awarded patents for his devices, even as he continued to make improvements on them. By 1887 Hollerith machines were being used to calculate death statistics in both Baltimore and New York. He entered his machines in an 1889 competition to select the equipment that would tabulate the 1890 census. Hollerith won the competition and the census contract.
His tabulating machines accomplished the 1890 census in record time, completing the basic population count in under six months and the entire census in two years, coming in more than $5 million under budget. Hollerith and his business were firmly established. In 1897, with his business continuing to grow, he formed the Tabulating Machine Company.
Over the next decade Hollerith would continue to introduce innovations to his system, as well as expanding his commercial ventures. In addition to tabulating census information for countries around the world, Hollerith machines found use in virtually all types of industries, helping keep track of financial information, railroad shipments, insurance policies and mortality estimates, and wage and payroll figures.
In 1911, faced with an increasingly challenging competitive environment, Hollerith merged the Tabulating Machine Company with three other businesses to form the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (C-T-R). Hollerith served as the company's first president, a position he held only briefly. From 1911 until his retirement in 1921, Hollerith remained involved with C-T-R as a consulting engineer, and one of the company's directors. Three years after Hollerith's retirement, the company changed names once more, becoming in 1924 International Business Machines, known throughout the world as IBM.
Following his retirement, Hollerith continued to pursue various inventions, as well as agricultural experiments, a long-standing hobby of his. He had made more than $1 million from the sale of his stock in C-T-R, but despite various plans for other businesses, he did not start another company. Married since 1890, he devoted the last years of his life to his family and to continuing improvements to the punched cards that had created his fame and fortune. He died on November 15, 1929.
American Mathematician and Inventor 1860–1929
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.
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O'Connor, J. J., and E. F. Robertson. "Herman Hollerith." School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St. Andrews, Scotland. July 1999. <http://www-history.mcs.St-andrews.ac.uk/history/Mathematicians/Hollerith.html>.
Russo, Mark. "Herman Hollerith: The World's First Statistical Engineer." <http://www.History.rochester.edu/steam/hollerith/>.