Everyone is familiar with the term "word processing," but computers were really developed for "data processing"—the organization and manipulation of large amounts of numeric data, or in computer jargon, "number crunching." Some examples of data processing are calculation of satellite orbits, weather forecasting, statistical analyses, and in a more practical sense, business applications such as accounting, payroll, and billing.
Since the beginning of time people have sought ways to help in the computing, handling, merging, and sorting of numeric data. Think of all the labor that Bob Cratchit performed when keeping track of Ebenezer Scrooge's figures and accounts (in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol ). Certainly Cratchit wished for an easier approach and undoubtedly Mr. Scrooge longed for a more accurate method to keep track of his accounts.
The story of the development of the computer reveals that for centuries people were creating and utilizing various mechanical devices to simplify the calculation and processing of numeric data. Perhaps one of the most relevant occurrences in the development of the computer was the work done by American engineer Herman Hollerith in 1889. In seeking to develop an easier and quicker method to count the U.S. Census, he decided to use punched cards to record the data and then use the cards as input into a calculating machine designed to tabulate the data. The technique worked and Hollerith eventually founded the Tabulating Machine Company. In the 1920s, this company became the IBM (International Business Machines) Corporation.
Another important phase in the computer's development also involved seeking a simpler solution for calculations involving large amounts of numeric data. During World War II, the accurate targeting of large artillery guns required frequent solutions of many complex mathematical formulae. The first all-electronic digital computer was developed to produce such calculations. The ENIAC did eventually lead to the development of the UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Calculator) series of computers that for many years rivaled those produced by IBM in the field of data processing.
Subsequently, computers have been the mainstay of data processing, particularly for the business world where they long ago replaced tabulating machines. Computers now allow for the automation of functions such as payroll and billing that previously required an army of clerks and a room full of filing cabinets. Indeed the data processing needs of the business world were as influential in the development of computer technology as were the government's need for accurate census enumeration and the military need for faster ballistic trajectory calculations.
One of the most significant developments in data processing that came about in response to business needs was computer data storage and retrieval, or databases and database management systems. A database is an organized collection of logically related data, which can be shared by different computer programs known as application programs. A database management system (DBMS) is a computer program that creates, maintains, and accesses the database. The database approach has many advantages over simply storing data directly in computer programs. Database systems originated in the late 1950s and early 1960s, largely by research and development personnel at IBM in response to the needs of the business community. Today, one of the most popular database and program combinations is the relational database and the relational database management system (RDBMS).
With today's personal computers, many data processing applications developed for business use are now routinely available to everyone. Some examples include spreadsheets, database programs, and personal finance software. Although they can be used in other ways, spreadsheets were developed for accounting and are basically automated ledger books. They utilize columns and rows to display numbers and text, and allow calculations to be performed on the data. Some typical software packages include Excel, Lotus 1-2-3, and QuatroPro. Database and database management systems are valuable data processing tools. Oracle, MySQL, and Access are database programs readily available today. Personal finance software such as Quicken or Money can help people manage money and budgets as well as aid in calculating taxes.
Data processing is a vital function of business and personal computers, and the desire to find easier ways to handle large amounts of numeric data was one of the major driving forces in the development of the digital computer. Indeed, numeric calculations are the backbone of computer operations since all operations are based on binary digits (0,1), or simple numbers. Consequently even when an application is functioning as a "word processor," or a user is playing games, the computer is, in fact, doing data processing.
see also Abacus; Hollerith, Herman; Office Automation Systems; Tabulating Machines.
Robert D. Regan
McCartney, Scott. ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World's First Computer. New York: Walker, 1999.
While it is hard to generalize, data-processing applications may be characterized as those that store and process large quantities of data on a routine basis, in order to be able to produce (regularly or on request) information that is predictably needed by an organization's employees, by its customers or suppliers, by government, or by any other organization. They are often referred to broadly as commercial applications. Typical applications within this category include financial accounting, cost and management accounting, market research and sales forecasting, order processing, investment analysis, financial modeling, stock control, production planning and control, transport planning and control, payroll, and personnel records. Cobol, since its introduction in 1960, has been the most commonly used language for data processing, though it has progressively been usurped by more modern high-level languages and by fourth-generation languages. Data-processing systems are normally long-lived (apart from the need to redesign/rewrite them periodically, they may well last as long as the host organization), and they handle data that is large in volume and complex in structure (which leads to a major concern for the problems and costs of data input and storage).
The data-processing function within an organization is that department responsible for the development and operation of application systems (largely of the types listed above) on behalf of other parts of the organization. Its tasks normally include systems analysis and design, program development and maintenance, database administration, computer operation, data preparation, data control, and network management. The data-processing department may not, however, be responsible for all data-processing applications within an organization, especially in the face of the widespread use of individual desktop computers, and conversely it may have responsibility for some applications that are not usually thought of as data processing (e.g. industrial process control).
In recognition that a lot of clerical and unit-record tasks could be described as data processing, the terms automatic data processing (ADP) or electronic data processing (EDP) were used in the 1960s, and can still occasionally be encountered. The term integrated data processing (IDP) also had some limited use as it became clear that much of an organization's data was common to separately developed systems, and the effort was made to integrate or rationalize them; that effort has mainly been diverted into the growth of databases and database management systems.
The term data processing is used in contexts other than the one described above: for instance, scientific data processing means the fairly straightfoward processing of large quantities of experimental results, and personal data processing means an individual's use of a microcomputer to keep personal records.