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Hollerith Tabulating Machine – Weekend must-read articles #19

Hollerith Tabulating Machine

In 1887, Herman Hollerith filed the application, which would become U.S. Patent 395,781, entitled “Art of compiling statistics.” It was for a punch card calculator, or tabulating machine. It meant a machine could read data on a medium (the punch cards), a technology which was crucial in completing the 1890 U.S. Census. Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company, which later formed a part of IBM.

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This week’s suggested reading

Herman Hollerith :: Wikipedia

Hollerith was born in Buffalo, New York, where he spent his early childhood. He entered the City College of New York in 1875 and graduated from the Columbia University School of Mines with an “Engineer of Mines” degree in 1879. In 1880 he listed himself as a mining engineer while living in Manhattan, and completed his Ph.D. in 1890 at Columbia University. He eventually moved to Washington, D.C., living in Georgetown, with a home on 29th Street and ultimately a factory for manufacturing his tabulating machines at 31st Street and the C&O Canal, where today there is a commemorative plaque placed by IBM.

Norwegian census in 1900 (using a Hollerith machine)

When cards have been prepared for a sufficient number of municipalities and towns, the cards are brought over to electric counting machines, as seen on the following drawing. Using these complicated, American enumeration machines, the clocks attached to the machine count the statistical characteristics corresponding to the different punched holes. By tuning the machine, the combination of e g age, marital status, occupation, birthplace etc can be counted simultaneously. For each card put into the machine, one pointers in the clocks corresponding to the relevant holes moves one stroke from 0 to 99, and the shorter pointer moves one stroke for each hundred counted, so that in all 9999 individuals can be counted on one clock. At the same time, the cards are sorted into the pigeon holes in the special sorting machine to the right of the counting machine.

The father of modern automatic computation :: Columbia University

Hollerith’s ideas for automation of the census are expressed succinctly in Patent No. 395,782 of Jan. 8, 1889: “The herein described method of compiling statistics which consists in recording separate statistical items pertaining to the individual by holes or combinations of holed punched in sheets of electrically non-conducting material, and bearing a specific relation to each other and to a standard, and then counting or tallying such statistical items separately or in combination by means of mechanical counters operated by electro-magnets the circuits through which are controlled by the perforated sheets, substantially as and for the purpose set forth.”

Anatomy of a Hollerith Card :: University of Delaware

Hollerith cards have 12 rows and 80 columns. Decimal digits are encoded in rows 0-9, one per column as shown above. Other characters are encoded using these rows plus rows 11-12 above row 0. Programmers prepared input using the IBM 407 Printing Calculator and IBM 026 Card Punch, which were entirely mechanical. The 026 produced copious amounts of rectangular chad which we used in place of rice at weddings.

Formed the formed the Tabulating Machine Company :: US 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… As for the Computer Tabulating Recording Company, in 1924, the resurgent enterprise changed its name to the International Business Machines Corporation, or IBM.

The 1890 Census :: HiveMind

In 1888, the Census Bureau decided to hold a competition to find a more efficient method for processing its national census. Candidates would have to process data collected from four areas in St Louis and the time needed to come up with the results would determine the ultimate winner. Three people registered for the competition and started to work. The three candidates captured the data in 144.5 hours, 100.5 hours and 72.5 hours (the latter was Hollerith’s time). Then the data was processed by each candidate’s machine; this took 44.5 hours, 55.5 hours and 5.5 hours. The impressive result of 5.5 hours was achieved by Hollerith’s tabulator. Hollerith was the clear winner and he received the contract to process and tabulate the 1890 census data.

Problems of Indian Census :: New York Times, February 25, 1900

Census taking is not the political picnic that many people imagine. Few appreciate the magnitude of the work; the eleventh census cost more than $11,000,000, and in the twelfth census an office force of more than 2,000 for about two years and a field force of over 50,000 for from two weeks to a month, will be employed. Then, too, the Hollerith tabulating machines, by which the population is counted and the returns tabulated, make census taking a huge industrial process.

The Art of Computer Programming :: Donald Knuth

The operator would insert a 6 5/8″ X 3 1/4″ punched card into the “press” and lower the handle; this caused spring-actuated pins in the upper plate to make contact with pools of mercury in the lower plate, wherever a hole was punched in the card. The corresponding completed circuits would cause associated dials on the panel to advance by one unit; and furthermore, one of the 26 lids of the sorting box would pop open. At this point the operator would reopen the press, put the card into the open compartment, and close the lid. One man reportedly ran 19071 cards through this machine in a single 6 1/2-hour working day, an average of about 49 cards per minute!

Job ad from 1918 :: New York Times, July 13, 1918

The Commission announces for Aug. 7, at the N. Y. Custom House, an examination for coder, for both men and women. Vacancies in the War Department and other branches of the service, at entrance salaries ranging from $900 to $1,200 a year, will be filled from this examination. Appointees will be required to code information furnished them by numerical codes. Competitors will be examined in spelling, 10; arithmetic, 10; letter writing, 10; penmanship, 10; copying from plain copy, 30; training and experience, 30. Applicants must show that they have coded for the Hollerith, Powers, or Pierce tabulating equipment for at least one month.

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Image (top) courtesy of Marcin Wichary.