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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Hollerith IBM and the American Census

Pascal, Keibnix and Babbage were spurred to invent new computing devices because they were impatient with the way things were being done in their day. The lack of efficiency in counting the United States Census in 1880 similarily inspired major new computing developments. Several thousand people and 7 1/2 years were required to count (manually) the results of that census. By the time it was completed it was almost time for the 1890 census. Dr. Herman Hollerith (1860- 1929) , a mechanical engineer and statistician , was hired by the Census Bureau to help solve their problem; he suggested that the bureau use punched cards to help solve their problem to record statistics . (Hollerith said that the idea occured to him when he saw a train conductor handed hand punched tickets to record passengers' destinations).

After trying a few other formats , Hollerith designed cards that were about the size if a dollar bill and had 288 locations where holes could be punched. The rows and collumns represented numerals and population characteristics , such as male and female , black or white , native or foreign born. People in various parts of the nation could enter local data by punching holes in the cards, which could then be sent for tabulation.

To handle these cards , Hollerith built an electric machine that could tabulate them , to the rate of 50 to 75 a minute . The machine contained metal pins that could "red" each of the 288 locations in each card. Wherever holes had been punched a pin would pass through the card , making contact with mercury filled cups and completing an electric circuit. Each time a circuit was closed , a counting mechanism in the machine was activated . In this way the diffirent items ( age, sex , etc.) contained on the cards could be tabulated at the same time.

By the time the next census was being planned , punch cards had permanently changed the nature of the counting process . Hollerith knew that he had come up with a money making invention. In 1896 he set up the tabulating Machine Company which manufactured both the machine and the cards. (After many mergers and name changes the Hollerith Company became the basis of the formation of the International Business Machine Company (IBM)).


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