Herman Hollerith: One Of The Youngest Inventors The World Has Ever Seen !

herman hollerith


Herman Hollerith should be given the youngest inventor award for he invented the tabulating machine when he was just 7.25 years old. Wait, 7.25? No kidding, Herman Hollerith born in 1860, is one of the few luckiest people who were born on February 29th (leap day), and he was technically just 7.25 years old (at least that’s what I would consider) when he submitted his doctoral thesis on “An Electric Tabulating Machine” to the Columbia University in 1889. In the same year (1889), he was also awarded his U.S. Patent Number 395,782 which he filed in 1884 (when he was 6 :p).

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An excerpt from the U.S. Patent: 395,782:

“The herein-described method of compiling statistics, which consists in recording separate statistical items pertaining to the individual by holes or combinations of holes 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.”


Let’s take a quick look at Herman Hollerith’s actual life (no more leap year jokes) to know what made him widely regarded as the “Father of Modern Automatic Computation”

  • Herman Hollerith was born to German immigrants, George and Franciska (Brunn) Hollerith, on February 29, 1860 in Buffalo, New York. He began his university education at the City College of New York at the age of 15, and graduated from the Columbia School of Mines with distinction in 1879. While at Columbia, Hollerith took the standard course of study which required both classes and practical work. As an engineering student, he took chemistry, physics, and geometry, as well as courses in surveying and graphics, and surveying and assaying. Hollerith was also required to visit local industries, such as metallurgical and machine shops, in order to understand how they functioned.

  • Shortly after graduation, Hollerith got a job at the U.S. Census Bureau as an assistant to his former teacher, William Petit Trowbridge. He worked as a statistician, compiling information on manufacturers. His article, “Report on the Statistics of Steam and Water-Power Used in the Manufacture of Iron and Steel,” was published in 1888 in the Census Bureau’s Report on Power and Machinery Employed in Manufacture. His work revealed the problems of dealing with large amounts of data by hand. The 1880 census took seven and a half years to complete. Because of the large numbers of people immigrating to the U.S., the 1890 and 1900 censuses were expected to take much longer.

  • At the Census Bureau, Hollerith met Kate Sherman Billings, daughter of Dr. John Shaw Billings, head of the Department of Vital Statistics. In addition to his work at the Bureau, Billings designed seven medical institutions and the New York Public Library, was chair of the Carnegie Institution, member of the National Board of Health, and oversaw publication of the Index Medicus, which contained abstracts of medical publications.

  • It was Billings who was thought to have provided Hollerith with the inspiration for the punched card tabulating machine. Hollerith acknowledged near the end of his life the help that Billings had given him. While Billings denied providing much assistance, it is clear that he relied heavily on Billing’s design concept. Hollerith thought he could design the machine, and later offered to include Billings in the project.

  • In 1882 Hollerith joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he taught mechanical engineering. At this time he investigated Billings suggestion, examining the way that the Jacquard loom worked with a view to seeing if it could be used in census work. He found that in most respects the function of the Jacquard loom was too far removed from what might be useful to the census work, however he did realise that the punched cards were an efficient way to store information. Another idea struck him one day on a train journey as he watched the ticket collector punch tickets. This was an easy way to punch information onto cards.

  • While he worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Hollerith began his first experiments. These used a paper tape, rather than cards, with pins which would go through a hole in the tape and complete an electrical contact. The idea was nearly right but the tape had drawbacks since it had to stop to allow the pin to go through the hole to make the contact. Hollerith realised that cards would provide a better solution.

  • Hollerith did not enjoy teaching so he soon sought another job. In 1884 he obtain a post in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C. This was either good luck or a brilliant career move depending on how far sighted Hollerith was in seeing that he would be in the best possible position to make full use of skills learnt in the patent office in patenting his own inventions.

  • He developed the early work he had done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on methods to convert the information on punched cards into electrical impulses. These impulses in turn would activate mechanical counters. He used at first the punch that was used for tickets on the railway to make the holes in the cards. This showed that the system worked but since the punch could only make holes near the edge of the card, the full potential was not being used.

  • Hollerith designed punches specially made for his system, the Hollerith Electric Tabulating System. He also improved the machines which read the cards. Engineering developments improved the accuracy of the pin going through the hole in the card to make an electrical connection with mercury placed beneath. The resulting electrical current activated a mechanical counter and the amount of information which could be handled on each card rapidly increased.

  • Hollerith’s system was first tested on tabulating mortality statistics in Baltimore, New Jersey in 1887 and again in New York City. This punched card system was in use by the time of the 1890 US census but it was not the only system to be considered for use with the census. It won convincingly in competition with two other systems considered for the 1890 census showing that it could handle data more quickly.

  • Having won, Hollerith now had to have punches and counting devices manufactured. The punches were made by Pratt and Whitney, later famed for building engines for aircraft. The punch was constructed in a similar way to a typewriter having a simple keyboard. The counting machines were made by the Western Electric Company. Everything was in place by June 1890 and the first data from the census arrived in September of that year. The counting was completed by 12 December 1890 having taken about three months to process instead of the expected time of two years if counting had been done by hand. The total population of the United States in 1890 was found to be 62,622,250.

Herman Hollerith Tabulating Machine

  • Speed was not the only benefit of using Hollerith’s system. It was possible to gather more data, and data such as the number of children born in a family, the number of children still alive in a family, and the number of people who spoke English were part of the 1890 census.

  • By 1891, Hollerith’s machines were being used to gather census information in Canada, Austria, and Norway. Between 1890 and 1900, he expanded the commercial uses of his machines to include railroad freight statistics and agricultural data. In 1896, Hollerith started the Tabulating Machine Company, to make his machines and sell the cards needed for them. Although business was good, Hollerith was suffering from emotional exhaustion. His employees never knew what he was going to do next. It was rumoured that he had extra strong doors installed in his home so that they would not fly off their hinges during his fits. His emotional state led to a falling out with the director of the census, which now handled much more statistical data for the government. After this incident, Hollerith devoted himself entirely to commercial work.

  • Never a man to leave things as they were, Hollerith immediately found new markets for his machines in the business world. Within 18 days after his machines were removed from the Census Bureau, he had placed them at the shops of the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad and at the Denver Gas & Electric Co. Between 1905 and 1909, he substantially developed his business as he won over a number of large accounts and introduced an updated version of his machines.

  • In 1911, his company merged with two other companies, the Computing Scale Company of America and the International Time Recording Company, to become the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company. Hollerith stayed at the merged company as a consulting engineer until he retired in 1921. In 1924, under the leadership of Thomas Watson, Sr., the merged company changed its name to International Business Machines (IBM). The machine that Hollerith developed was the initial reason for IBM’s success.

Hollerith’s contribution to modern day statistics are unfathomably accountable. It was his inventions and innovations that lead to developments in the field of data handling, computing and statistics and made him fondly remembered as “the first statistical engineer”. Although statistically he would’ve been just 39 now (leap year jokes again), it is time to honour him on his 156th Birthday for his contributions towards the advancement of technology.

Image Sources: computerhistory.org, census.gov