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Herman Hollerith - PEOPLE COUNT | Business

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Herman Hollerith - PEOPLE COUNT

  Herman Hollerith, American inventor, born February 29, 1860 in Buffalo, New York, and educated at Columbia University, devised a system of encoding data on cards through a series of punched holes. This system proved useful in statistical work and was important in the development of the digital computer. Hollerith's machine, used in the 1890 U.S. census, "read" the cards by passing them through electrical contacts. Closed circuits, which indicated hole positions, could then be selected and counted. His Tabulating Machine Company (1896) was a predecessor to the International Business Machines Corporation.

     The Hollerith system was clearly a great leap forward. It took years of hard, patient work to complete the invention. He joined the Census Office in 1879, but didn't file his first patent until 1884. He first put his machines to work in 1887 in Baltimore—just about the time the Census Office was limping through the final stages of manually tabulating the 1880 census. At that rate, the 1890 census would be out of date by the time it was completed. The population was growing about 25 percent a decade, to more than 60 million in 1890. And more information was needed on each of those 60 million people.  

     It really proved itself in the real census of 1890. Complete results were available two years sooner than the previous census. The data was more thoroughly analyzed, too, and at less cost—an estimated $5 million less than manual tabulation, nearly ten times greater than the predicted saving and a smaller amount of manpower than would have been necessary otherwise. The system was again used for the 1891 census in Canada, Norway and Austria and later for the 1911 UK census.

     In 1896, Hollerith formed the Tabulating Machine Company, opening a shop in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC. He provided machines for the 1900 census count, but had greatly raised his leasing prices. Hollerith, secure in his monopoly over the technology, knew that the Census Office would have to pay whatever he demanded. It did, but when the office became the permanent Census Bureau in 1902, it began to explore other options.   Barely skirting patent restrictions, Census Bureau employees were able to create their own tabulating machine, more advanced than Hollerith's, in time for the 1910 census. Census Bureau technician James Powers was able to secure the patent for this machine, and he started his own machine tabulation company in 1911.

      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.  He died of a heart attack in 1929.     

    As for the Computer Tabulating Recording Company, in 1924, the resurgent enterprise changed its name to the International Business Machines Corporation, or IBM.

For a short video on how the Hollerith Machine worked, go to  

 The Buffalo History Gazette

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