Who Was Herman Hollerith?

The Man Who Revolutionized Data Processing

Picture via sutori.com

The census. The United States Constitution requires that a census be taken every 10 years. The reason given is so that representation in the House of Representatives can be properly apportioned. The first census was taken in 1790 and as the years went by more and more information was required in addition to just counting. There were so much data collected in the census of 1880 that almost a full decade was needed to process all the results. If nothing changed the 1890 census would not be fully processed until well after the 1900 census started. Not a desirable situation.

Herman Hollerith was born in upstate New York in 1860. At age 19, he graduated from the Columbia University School of Mines with an engineering degree. He made an impression on Professor W.P. Trowbridge, who would later on hire him to work for the United States Census Office.

Before we go on with Hollerith’s story, let’s take a short side trip to France. The city of Nimes in southern France is noted for weaving fabrics of all kinds (one of which bears its name — denim). Intricate patterns were almost impossible to produce prior to 1800 because a huge amount of effort would be needed to keep track of what colors should be woven where and how the over-under should be performed.

By 1805, Joseph-Marie Jacquard had invented a way to program the loom so it would know what colors to put where and how the weave should proceed. That way involved the use of punched cards — about 2,000 of them for a typical weave. The holes in the punched cards would allow rods to poke through. The rods would lift the yarn at the proper time to create the pattern designers had created. The result was an automatic weaving machine controlled by coded punch cards,

Back to Hollerith. Trowbridge, working for the Census Office, hired Hollerith to work as a statistician for the 1880 census. He quickly realized that there must be a better way to collect, summarize and manipulate the data the census collected. A colleague brought up the Jacquard loom and suggested that punch cards might be used to speed up the census data processing. Hollerith also noted the way railroad conductors collected information about riders by punching holes in their tickets. Hollerith ran with the punched card idea and immediately saw how data could not only be counted and summarized but also be used in more advanced computations.

His system recorded data by punching holes in cards. The holes were sensed, processed and tabulated electro-mechanically. Hollerith invented the machines to punch and process the cards. He tested the entire process in 1887, the same year the 1880 census was finally tabulated. The test was a huge success and won him a contract from the Census Office when it started the 1890 census. The 1890 census was completed in six years even though the population had increased and much more information was acquired and processed than in the 1880 census.

(At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair census clerks worked with the machines and tabulated data from the 1890 census. Crowds were amazed at the speed with which the process proceeded, and Hollerith was awarded a medal for his invention.)

As it became evident that Hollerith’s machines would provide more information at lower processing cost foreign governments clamored for Hollerith’s machines. Hollerith machines were used in 1891 for censuses of Canada, Norway, and Austria; railroad companies used them to calculate fare information.

Hollerith formed the Tabulating Machine Company in 1896, and, since he had a (temporary) monopoly, greatly raised his prices. Census Bureau (the Census Office was now the Census Bureau) employees were able to create their own tabulating machines, without violating Hollerith’s patents, which were more advanced than Hollerith’s, in time for the 1910 census

Hollerith’s company, which had changed its name to the Computer Tabulating Recording Company after a merger, was almost run out of the market. But in 1914, Thomas J. Watson, Sr., a super salesman, joined the company as an executive and became president. Although he and Hollerith did not get along, he revolutionized the way the company was run and pulled it back up to a major player in the data processing field.

Watson merged a number of companies and in 1924 Watson renamed the enterprise The International Business Machines Corporation, or IBM.

Although Hollerith worked with the company he founded as a consulting engineer until his retirement in 1921, he became less and less involved in day-to-day operations after Watson came on board. Hollerith retired to his farm in rural Maryland, where he spent the rest of his life raising Guernsey cattle. The punched cards became popularly known as Hollerith cards. Hollerith died of a heart attack in 1929.

Been writing articles here and there for 15 years. I like to write about a variety of topics.

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