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Hollerith, Herman - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Herman Hollerith, Social and Economic Impact

tabulating machine census company

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).

Personal Life

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.

Career Details

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.

Hollerith, Herman [next] [back] Holland, William H.(1841?–1907) - Soldier, politician, Chronology

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