Sunday 14 June 2020

Hollerith Tabulating Machine (1890)

1890 Hollerith Tabulating Machine
Introduced June 1890

The United States has a census every ten years, an essential act of counting all the population of the country and working out their demographics. But as the population grew in the 19th century, so it took longer and longer to take the census and process all the information. By 1880 the whole process took eight years, nearly long enough to clash with the 1890 census. Something had to be done.

The key part to processing the census more quickly (and cheaply) was the punched card. First introduced in 1804 (more than two centuries ago!) with the semi-automated Jacquard Loom, punched cards allowed binary data to be stored and read by simple mechanical and later electro-mechanical devices. It seemed to American inventor Herman Hollerith that this could be a key part of the solution to the census problem.

For the new census, data was still collected on paper but it was then transcribed to a punched card with 12 rows and 12 columns of binary data, marked by the presence or absence of a hole. The key element was Hollerith's Tabulating Machine. An electromechanical sensor combined with a simple counting dial could then add up the data in a variety of ways, which allowed for all sorts of data analysis.

100 million cards were made, and each was processed just four times to come up with the variety of statistics that the census office wanted. It took two years off the time it took to process the data, but the lasting legacy of the tabulating machine was much deeper. For the first time it showed that automation could be used to process data on a large scale. And remember… this was 1890.

Hollerith’s business grew and in 1896 he create the Tabulating Machine Company, which then in 1911 merged with some other businesses to become the awkwardly named Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company. In 1924 this company renamed itself to International Business Machines (IBM). And a century after the Tabulating Machine’s success in the 1890 Census IBM gave us... errr… the PS/1.

Punched card from a Hollerith Machine
As it happens, the Hollerith Machine could be used for evil as well as good. The Nazi regime used demographic data collected on punched cards extensively with horrifying consequences.

Hollerith’s tabulating machine popularised the punched card, something still seen today sometimes in voting machines but which generally fell out of use in the 1980s. Today punched cards can be quite collectable, especially for more obscure systems or ones with some historical interest. However, most people who actually did use them don’t miss them at all... especially if you’ve ever dropped a big pile on the floor and have then had to sort them back into order by hand.

Image credits:
Diane Maine via Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0
Marcin Wichary via Flickr – CC BY 2.0

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