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 on Herman Hollerith

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, http://www.history.rochester.edu/steam/hollerith/first.htm (March 17, 1999).