Herman Hollerith

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Herman Hollerith

Herman Hollerith was an American inventor and entrepreneur whose inventions paved the way for the information processing industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Hollerith is widely regarded as the father of automatic computation.

Hollerith was born in 1960, in Buffalo, New York to German immigrant parents. His father, a classical language teacher, died accidentally when Hollerith was just seven. His mother came from a family of skilled locksmiths in Europe who had set up a business of manufacturing horse-drawn carriages in America. She brought him up with values emphasizing thrift, integrity, industriousness and self-reliance. Hollerith was academically brilliant. He joined the City College of New York in 1875 and graduated from Columbia University School of Mines in 1879, at the age of nineteen. He got perfect grades in drawing, geometry, graphics and surveying and graduated with an ‘Engineer of Mines’ degree.

After graduating, Hollerith moved to Washington D.C. and began work as a special agent for the U.S. Census of 1880. His job was to collect and analyze statistical information on the use of steam and water power by iron and steel industries. In 1882, Hollerith moved to Boston and started teaching Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But teaching did not interest him much and in his spare time he worked at the MIT lab facilities to solve the census problem. He tried to mechanize the census tabulation to save time and reduce errors. He gained the knowledge of patent law by working as an assistant examiner in the U.S. Patent Office. In 1884, he filed for a patent titled ‘Art of Compiling Statistics’ and it was granted in 1889. Hollerith submitted a description of this system titled ‘An Electrical Tabulating System’ to Columbia University and was awarded a PhD in 1889. Hollerith developed mechanical tabulators using punched cards to tabulate huge bodies of data very quickly. These punched card tabulators built by Hollerith helped to compile the 1890 U.S. Census in only one year, whereas the previous 1880 Census had taken eight years.

In 1896, Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company and started his own business. Census bureaus in England, Italy, Germany, Russia, France, Norway, Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines purchased his punched cards and leased his equipment. The 1990 U.S. Census again made use of Hollerith’s key-punch and automatic card-feed mechanism. In 1911, Hollerith’s company merged with three other firms to form the Computer Tabulating Recording Company. In 1924, it was renamed International Business Machines Corporation (IBM).

Hollerith died in 1929, in Washington D.C. A commemorative plaque was installed by IBM at his factory where the tabulating machines were manufactured. Punch cards or IBM cards were called Hollerith cards in Herman Hollerith’s honor. They were used extensively throughout the twentieth century in the data processing industry, for data input, processing and storage. Early digital computers also used Hollerith cards. Hollerith Constants, used in early FORTRAN programs for manipulation of character data, were also named after Herman Hollerith. Even today, in some countries, voting machines still use Hollerith’s punched cards to record data.

Reference: Emerson W. Puch, Building IBM: Shaping an Industry and its Technology, MIT Press, 1995, Ch-1, ‘Hollerith: Inventor and Entrepreneur’, pp.1-18 William R. Aul , ‘Herman Hollerith: Data Processing Pioneer’, Think (IBM's employee publication), November 1972 edition, pp. 22-24