This Day in Tech History

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August 16, 1890: Census Bureau Releases First Results Tabulated Automatically

On August 16, of 1890 the Census Bureau releases its results that were tabulated automatically for the first time. Herman Hollerith’s tabulating machine won a competition to tabulate the US Census and the first results from his invention were officially released on this date. Using punched cards, the totals were tabulated and recorded. His company was eventually merged with others and in 1924, it became what we now know as IBM.

A younger Hollerith

A younger Hollerith

Herman Hollerith

Herman Hollerith

Hollerith developed a mechanism using electrical connections to trigger a counter, recording information. A key idea was that data could be coded numerically. Hollerith determined that if numbers could be punched in specified locations on a card, in the now-familiar rows and columns, then the cards could be counted or sorted mechanically and the data recorded. On January 8, 1889, Hollerith was issued U.S. Patent 395,782.

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Hollerith Tabulating Machine

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Key Punch

Hollerith had left teaching and begun working for the United States Census Office in the year he filed his first patent application. He built machines under contract for the Census Office, which used them to tabulate the 1890 census. The previous 1880 census had taken eight years to tabulate!!

In 1896 Hollerith started his own business when he founded the Tabulating Machine Company. Many major census bureaus around the world leased his equipment and purchased his cards, as did major insurance companies. Hollerith’s machines were used for censuses in England, Italy, Germany, Russia, Austria, Canada, France, Norway, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines, and again in the 1900 census.

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To make his system work, he invented the first automatic card-feed mechanism and the first key punch (that is, a punch operated by a keyboard); a skilled operator could punch 200–300 cards per hour. He also invented a tabulator. The 1890 Tabulator was hardwired to operate only on 1890 Census cards. A plugboard control panel in his 1906 Type I Tabulator allowed it to do different jobs without being rebuilt (the first step towards programming).

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Herman Hollerith’s punched card, 1895. Image by Railroad Gazette

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These inventions were among the foundations of the modern information processing industry and Hollerith’s designs dominated the computing landscape for almost 100 years.

The plant of the Tabulating Machine Corp. is seen here in 1893.

The plant of the Tabulating Machine Corp. is seen here in 1893.

In 1911 four corporations, including Hollerith’s firm, merged to form the Computing Tabulating Recording Company (CTR). Under the presidency of Thomas J. Watson, it was renamed International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) in 1924.

Watson, the computer seen on Jeopardy and capable of answering questions in ordinary natural language, was named after IBM president Thomas J. Watson.

Watson, the computer seen on Jeopardy and capable of answering questions in ordinary natural language, was named after IBM president Thomas J. Watson.

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