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Hollerith, Herman

cards punched card census

[hol erith] (1860–1929) US computer scientist: introduced the modern punched card for data processing.

A graduate of the Columbia University School of Mines in New York City, Hollerith did some teaching at MIT and worked on air brakes and for the US Patent Office before joining one of his former teachers to assist with the processing of the US Census of 1880. By 1887 he had developed his machine-readable cards and a ‘census machine’ that could handle up to 80 cards per minute, enabling the 1890 census to be processed in 3 years. Punched cards had been used by before 1800 to mechanically control looms, but Hollerith introduced electromechanical handling and used the cards for computation: the Hollerith code relates alphanumeric characters to the positions of holes in the punched card. After the 1890 census, Hollerith adapted his device for commercial use and set up freight statistics systems for two railroads, founding the Tabulating Machine Company in 1896 to make and sell his equipment; by later mergers this became the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM). Hollerith’s ideas were initially more used in Europe than in the USA, but from the 1930s punched card methods became widespread.

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