Hollerith tabulating machine
Hollerith tabulating machine
US 395781
Herman Hollerith

A wide range of inventions and innovations are known as the most essential and valuable inventions, including airplanes, vehicles, electric and lamps, or some emerging technologies such as self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, and CRISPR gene modification technology.

 Among these inventions, the Internet and computers have come into sight as one of the most significant inventions, which has been effective in almost all parts of life, from personal life to business and economics. Herman Hollerith certainly is one of the pioneers of computer development, who combined his electrical knowledge and technical ideas to create an electrical data processing system. This creative idea improved data processing considerably and is known as the foundation for modern computers.


Imagine yourself in the nineteenth century; It is 1888, and there are almost two years left until the next American census. Your former employer, the US Census Bureau, has announced a competition. The prize of this competition is a further profitable contract for data processing in the next census. You have to prove that you provide the most efficient way to record, classify, and process census data. This innovative competition does not seem so difficult, especially when you have been testing your electrical processing system for several years and believe it is the best available system. You have even filled a patent. Is there anything to lose?


This is a story about the situation of Hermann Hollerith, a child of a German immigrant family. This competition eventually became one of the most important moments of his professional life. Herman was born on February 29, 1860, in New York City. He graduated from Columbia University in 1879 at the age of nineteen. Hollerith's first career had no relation with the field of his education.

In 1880, by the recommendation of a professor at Columbia University, he began working as a statistician in the US Census Bureau. He was an observer of the slow and deadly process of recording thousands of data from the country's growing population. It should be noted that before the invention of the Hollerith electrical tabulating machine, census results were hand-counted and data processing usually took years. For example, the final results of the 1880 census were reviewed and announced until about 1887!


Working in Census Bureau, Herman’s professional networking grew up. He met with John Shaw Billings, director of vital statistics. During the meeting, Billings pointed to the need for a device for better statistics and data analysis: "To do this, there must be a mechanism, a mechanical device for processing the population and similar statistics."


According to the famous historian James Cortada, this conversation was of those historical distinctive moments in the history of data processing; it aroused Hollrith's ideation which eventually resulted in a huge transformation of data processing.  Of course, the intellectual fruits of this friendly exchange were not immediate.

Hollerith left from the Census Bureau shortly after the 1880 census (and before developing his pioneering idea) to teach mechanical engineering at MIT. His work at MIT led Hollerith to come up with the idea. Inspired by Billings, he created an electrical system for counting data, using something like a Jacquard loom to make textiles, he used punch cards. While observing how punch cards are used in train tickets, he realized that he could use seemingly random, well-defined holes in punch cards to count data accurately and quickly.


Hermann's innovative system was made up of several separate parts, so he filed several different patent applications. The result of these applications was a portfolio of patent certificates numbered "US 395781", "US 395782", and "US 395783", which were awarded to him in January 1889 by the US Patent and Trademark Office. The set of patents describes a punch card table that records data through a mechanical tool.




"The records must be in a way that a machine can read them (via electromechanical measuring devices)," wrote Holritt in the book “An Electric Tabulating System”. This is done easily by punching cards or strips of paper. Electromagnetic counters or sorting mechanisms or a combination of the two can then be used. "Each hole represents a different piece of data (such as age, education, and place of birth) and describes the pattern of holes in the card, the person counted in the census." In this system, he used only one card per person.


In his first practical attempt to test the efficiency of his device, Hollerith began collecting health statistics from Baltimore and New Jersey in 1887. This effort seems to have been made on time; this provides an opportunity for Herman to fix possible problems and enter the competition of the Census Bureau for the 1890 census contract. In the race, Hollerite competed with two other participants, and it was eventually proven that his device would save a considerable amount of government time and cost.

To better understand the difference between the Hollerith system and his competitors, consider that in the two main indicators of data acquisition (transcription) and data tabulation, he achieved records of 72.5 and 5.5 hours, respectively (approximately 2 and 10 times faster than the system used by competitors).


Thanks to this remarkable performance, the US Census Bureau awarded the 1890 Census Processing and Scheduling Contract to Herman Hollerith. It later proved to be a very wise choice, as he successfully completed the processing of the results in less than three years, saving $ 5 million in estimated cost (approximately $ 141 million today). Later, Holritt's innovative device was used to process the 1900 census.


This was not the only success of Herman Hollerith and his invention; in 1889, at the Paris World's Fair, he received a gold medal for his valuable innovation. The governments of Canada, Norway, and Austria also used his system to process their 1891 censuses.


But what makes  Hollerite's different from other ordinary inventors was his view about future applications of his system. He knew that the idea of ​​collecting data through punches could be used in other applications. He realized that he had created something that many businesses, including railroads and governments, needed, and so he started his business in 1896 in the form of a company called the Tabulating Machine Company. Following its merger with two other companies in the field, the company founded Computing-Tabulating-Recording or C-T-R, which is a prelude to the establishment and development of the renowned company IBM. After merging the companies, Hollerith continued to work as one of the company's chief consultants, and in 1921, after retiring, he moved to his farm in Maryland. He died of a heart attack in 1929.


This great inventor patented many inventions during his lifetime. He was fully aware of the importance of census data for the public welfare and future of the country. The federal government, local governments, real estate developers, and residents, in addition to assisting in deciding whether to open new stores and products, use census data to determine where new schools, hospitals, and roads will be built. He rightly describes his census processing system as "a picture of the social and economic conditions of the public." Just as a photograph that captures a moment in time, a census captures the current social and economic situation of the country.


With his innovative invention, Hollerite paved the way for modern censuses. The US government used improved versions of Hollower technology to complete the results of its census until 1960 when computers took over. It is interesting to know that using the current automated census administration system, it is expected that the 2020 census forms will be processed with an average of approximately one form in 35 seconds!


The recent US census is also a new milestone. For the first time, respondents can conduct the census online or by telephone and by mail. It is even possible to use an iPhone app to record results, and thus the line of census-related innovations has continued since Herman Hollerith.