Herman Hollerith

From error to error, one discovers the entire truth.
Sigmund Freud

Herman Hollerith (1860-1929) in 1880
Herman Hollerith in 1880

In 1879 the bright and unmanageable teenager Herman Hollerith (1860-1929) graduated with distinction from the School of Mines at Columbia University in New York and went to work as a special agent for the US Census Office in Washington, D.C. One of his professors of engineering, William P. Trowbridge (1828-1892), engaged for the Census as an expert special agent, got the job for him. The 1880 census was about to begin, and the Census Bureau needed employees with mathematical and engineering backgrounds.

Although the 1880 census had taken only a few months, the work of tabulating and analyzing the data promised to drag on for years. By the time it was done, the census reports would be hopelessly out of date; the government would be lucky enough to finish in time for the next census in 1890. Since the country’s population, swelled by immigration, was growing by the millions, the 1890 census undoubtedly would take even more time and money. The situation was getting out of control and the Census Bureau was casting about for a solution.

In his spare time, Hollerith helped Dr. John Shaw Billings (1838-1913), a surgeon and head of the division of vital statistics of the Census, to compile his reports. Billings appreciated the young man’s help and invited him to dinner one Sunday night in August of 1881. That proved to be a cornerstone event in the life of Hollerith, as he recalled later:
One Sunday evening, at Dr. Billings’ tea table, he said to me there ought to be a machine for doing the purely mechanical work of tabulating population and similar statistics. We talked the matter over and I remember… he thought of using cards with the description of the individual shown by notches punched in the edge of the card…. After studying the problem I went back to Dr. Billings and said that I thought I could work out a solution for the problem and asked him would he go in with me. The Doctor said he was not interested any further than to see some solution of the problem worked out.

Tackling the problem on his own, Hollerith decided to study the Census’s procedures. In the first step of the count, enumerators called at every household unit and recorded the answers to their questions on large sheets of paper (known as schedules). The completed schedules were sent back to Washington, where an army of clerks transcribed the answers to tally sheets. For example, for every white male on a schedule, a slash mark was placed in a small box on a tally sheet, five slashes to a box. It was easy to add up the slashes on a tally sheet since the form was divided into large boxes that contained a specific number of small boxes. The clerks totaled up the completed large boxes and noted the number of slashes at the bottom of the sheet. In the next step, the tally totals were transferred to consolidation sheets, whose figures were combined to yield the population of the county, state, and finally, of the whole nation.

The 1880 enumeration required six tallies, one for every major statistical classification. In the first tally, the Census broke down the population by sex, race, and birthplace; in other tallies, it collated these statistics with literacy, occupation, and other characteristics. Every time a tally was called for, the clerks had to sift through the schedules all over again, and there were millions of schedules. The process was remarkably slow and expensive, not to mention prone to error. Moreover, it prevented the Census from performing sophisticated analyses of the data.

The first tabulator from 1890
The first tabulator of Hollerith from 1890

Almost everything post- and pre- census work were done by hand. The only mechanical aid was a simple contraption called the Seaton device, invented by Charles W. Seaton, the Census’s chief clerk. It consisted of a continuous roll of tally sheets wound on a set of spools in a wooden box. By zigzagging the roll around the spools, it brought several columns of a sheet close together, making it easier for the clerks to enter the slashes. Completed rolls were removed from the box, cut into separate sheets, and consolidated numerically. Even with the Seaton device, the 1880 census took nearly an entire decade to tabulate and publish.

In 1882, Hollerith became an instructor in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he started building his first tabulating system (a year later he returned to Washington to become an examiner for the Patent Office). Initially, he made a mistake, deciding to use punched tape instead of cards. The tape was run over a metal drum, under an array of metal brushes; whenever the brushes passed over a hole, electrical contact was made with the drum, advancing a counter. A separate counter was set up for each statistical category, and the totals were displayed by a number on the counter. Anyway, the first system was a huge improvement over tally and consolidation sheets; once the data on the schedules had been converted into a punched tape, many items could be tabulated in a single, fast run of the tape, in contrast to the one, two, or three items that could be collated on a tally sheet at any time.

The card reader of Hollerith
The card reader of Hollerith

Although this system was a big step forward, Hollerith soon realized that he had made a serious mistake: paper tape was a flawed medium, severely limiting the tabulator’s speed and flexibility because of its serial access. For example, if you wanted to retrieve from a tape a particular piece of information, or related pieces of information, you’d have to sift through the (entire) reel. Moreover, once you found the data, there was no way to isolate it for future reference (other than cutting the tape into pieces). It seems Hollerith came to a dead end, forgetting Billings’ idea of punch cards. However, once he was traveling in the West and as he recalled later “…and I had a ticket with what I think was called a punch photograph…. The conductor… punched out a description of the individual, as light hair, dark eyes, a large nose, etc. So you see, I only made a punch photograph of each person.” (Punched photographs discouraged vagrants from stealing passengers’ tickets and passing them off as their own.) Thus Hollerith rediscovered the idea on his own.

The decision to use cards led Hollerith to redesign his initial system. He designed a special puncher (a pantograph punch consisting of a template and two connected punches); when the operator punched the template, the second puncher perforated the card. The card reader was a small press made up of an overhead array of pins and an underlying bed of tiny cups of mercury; when the operator slipped a card into the press and pulled down on the handle, the pins passed through the holes into the mercury, closing electrical circuits that advanced the counters (each completed circuit caused an electromagnet to advance a counting dial by one number), 40 simple clock-like dials set into a wooden table. When the bell signaled the card had been read, the operator recorded the data on the dials, opened the card reader, removed the punch cards, and reset the dials.

The sorter of Hollerith
The sorter of Hollerith

The sorter was simply a box with several compartments, positioned next to each tabulator. When a card with a desired set of characteristics passed through the reader, a box on the sorter opened up, and the operator slipped the card into it, then reset the dials, and positioned a new card to repeat the process. An experienced tabulator clerk could process 80 punch cards per minute.

Hollerith intended to power his tabulators with batteries and recharge them through the power outlet. In 1884 he applied and in 1889 received his first patent for a tabulator (US pat. No. 395783), for a tabulator with paper tape. On the same date, he received his first patent for a tabulator with punched cards (US pat. No. 395781).

The Census Office was impressed with Hollerith’s work, but it decided to conduct an official test of the system before making a commitment. The trial in 1888 pitted Hollerith’s machines against the “chip” system of Charles Pidgin (Pidgin invented the first electromagnetic calculating machine in the world) and the “slip” system of William C. Hunt, both Census officials. In the chip system, data from the schedules were transcribed to colored cards; in the slip system, the information was written onto slips of paper in colored inks. In both cases, the cards and slips were counted by hand. The competition called for the transcription and tabulation of a thick sheaf of schedules, compiled during the 1880 census, covering 10491 people in St. Louis. There were two parts to the trial: the time required to transcribe the schedules and the time required to tabulate the data. Surprisingly, Hollerith’s system smashed the rivals. It showed its greatest advantage in the tabulation portion of the test, completing the job eight to ten times faster than the hand-counted slip and chip methods.

Pleased with the results, the Census ordered 56 tabulators and sorters, and Hollerith was in big business. Hollerith’s machines went to work in July 1890, shortly after the completion of the head count of the census. The first task was a general tally of the population, and Hollerith devised a special counter for the job, a typewriter-like device equipped with twenty keys, numbered 1 to 20. The clerks read the schedules, which represented only one family per sheet, then pressed the key signifying the number of people on the schedule. Some operators handled 9200 schedules, listing 50000 people, in a single day. By 16 August, only six weeks after the count had begun, the Census had a tally: 62,622,250. With great pride and fanfare, the figure was officially announced in October, and everyone was suitably amazed.

Hollerith’s punch card system received a great deal of attention in the popular and scientific press in the USA and abroad and was featured on the front tape of the 30 August 1890 issue of Scientific American (see it nearby).

Compared to the 1880 census, which had taken nine years and cost $5.8 million, the 1890 count was completed in fewer than seven years, but it had cost $11.5 million, twice as much. Under the circumstances, there was some controversy about the benefits of automation. The Census, which had paid only $750,000 in rental fees for Hollerith’s equipment, ascribed the financial disparity to the expense of running a far more careful and thorough statistical analysis of the raw data. Indeed, the Census estimated that it had actually saved about $5 million in labor costs.

The 1890 tabulator was capable only of counting. Subsequent models, developed by Hollerith, were also able to add, thus broadening their scope to accounting, warehousing, and shipping applications. Between 1902 and 1905, Hollerith also developed an automatic card feed and a method for reading cards in motion and settled on a standard card format.

Hollerith’s system was promptly adopted all over the world. In late 1890, Austria, then Russia, Canada, and France ordered several tabulators and sorters for their census. After some initial resistance, the private industry began using them too. Swamped with paperwork, large companies like the Chicago department store, the New York Central Railroad Company, and the Pennsylvania Steel Company moved the equipment into their accounting and inventory departments.

In 1892 Hermann Hollerith moved his fledgling tabulating machine business from downtown Washington, D.C., to a former cooper’s shop in the Georgetown section of the city. The two-story building (later expanded) housed Hollerith’s card manufacturing plant, assembly plant, repair shop, and development laboratory. In 1896, Hollerith incorporated his business as the Tabulating Machine Company.

By the early 1900s, Hollerith’s firm, the Tabulating Machine Company, had more customers than it could handle. However, because the firm leased rather than sold its equipment, which provided a steady and quite profitable stream of income but produced a thinner cash flow, the company was always short of capital. Moreover, Hollerith was a brilliant engineer, but not a brilliant businessman and he gradually lost a large part of his business. In July 1911, Hollerith agreed to sell his company to financier Charles Flint for US$2,312,100, and the company became part of Flint’s Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, which eventually in 1924 became the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM).

Biography of Herman Hollerith

Herman Hollerith (1860-1929)
Herman Hollerith (1860-1929)

Herman Hollerith was born on 29 February 1860, in Buffalo, New York (sadly, the poor boy could only get birthday presents once every four years :-). He was the youngest of six children of German immigrants Johann Georg Franz Hollerith and his second wife Franziska (Brunn) Hollerith. Georg had one child from his first marriage (Anna, b. 1836), before marrying Franziska Brunn (b. 29 May 1818) on 14 June 1846, in Speyer, Germany, and they had five children (Regina Therese, b. 1847; Bertha (Betsy), b. 1849; Georg Karl (George Charles), b. 28 Oct. 1855; Fanny, b. 1857; Herman, b. 1860).

Georg Hollerith was born on 18 September 1808, in Großfischlingen, Rheinpfalz, a region in south-western Germany (the founder of the Hollerith family in Rhineland-Palatinate was one Johann Michael Hollerith, a native of South Tyrol, who moved to Großfischlingen in the 1680s, to marry the local girl Anna Katharina Engelhardt in 1687). Johann Georg was the son of Franz Hollerith (1780-1863), a burgomaster of Großfischlingen, and he had two younger brothers: Georg Anton (1813-1900), and Mathias (b. 1815, in 1856 also emigrated to the USA).

Johann Georg attended а school in the nearby town of Landau, then studied theology at the University of Heidelberg. After graduation, he worked for some time as a Lutheran priest, then became a professor of ancient languages (Latin and Greek) in the Gymnasium at Speyer (Pfalz). In 1832, Johann Georg, a loner, a freethinker, and an accomplished violinist, took part in the famous Hambacher Fest, the culmination of bourgeois opposition at the time of the Restoration. In 1848 he put down his schoolbooks to take part in the Revolution, and after the Battle of Kirchheimbolanden in June, he was imprisoned at the fortress of Rastatt. He was eventually released but lost his work, and without means of existence, he and his family (his wife Franziska and two daughters) had no choice but to emigrate to America.

In the USA Hollerith family settled in Buffalo, New York, where Franziska had relatives. Initially, the economic condition of the family was not very good, and Johann Georg worked as a teacher and a gardener. However, he was an energetic man of enterprise and soon succeeded to obtain large estates in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where he traveled a lot and earned many loyal friends among the Indians. In the 1860s he was already a big landowner, who rented his lands to farmers, and took part in the Civil War, serving in the local guard of Buffalo. Unfortunately, while visiting his lands in 1866, he was severely injured when the horses shied, overturning his carriage. He never fully recovered from this injury and died on 9 March 1869.

Herman Hollerith as a child in late 1860s
Herman Hollerith as a child in the late 1860s

Franziska Hollerith was left to raise their five children alone (Herman was only nine years old). Proud and independent, she declined to ask her financially comfortable relatives (they had been locksmiths in Germany, and after immigration to America, they established the carriage factory Brunn Carriage Manufacturing Co. in Buffalo) for assistance, choosing instead a life of tough, principled self-reliance and making custom hats for rich women.

Sometime after the death of Johann Georg, the family moved to New York City, where Herman attended a public school for a short time. He was a mischievous child and had difficulty with his spelling (he remained a bad speller till the end of his life), he would slip out of the schoolroom when spelling time came. In response to this, the teacher locked the door one day, whereupon Herman jumped out of the second-story window. After that heroic deed, he was taken out of school and taught by a Lutheran minister.

Herman Hollerith was probably promoted by his father’s friend from the Revolution of 1848—Karl (Carl) Schurz (1829-1906). Schurz, a man of tremendous influence, who left Germany after the Revolution just like Hollerith, moved to the US in 1852, and later became a Union general in the Civil War, US senator, and US Secretary of the Interior from 1877 until 1881 under the presidency of Rutherford Hayes.

Herman entered the City College of New York in 1875 (in the US in the late nineteenth century, colleges were often more akin to upper-level secondary schools, than to universities). After a year and a half, he was admitted into the School of Mines at Columbia College (now Columbia University), and graduated in September 1879, with the degree of Engineer of Mines, boasting perfect 10.0 grades (he had low marks only in bookkeeping and machines). While at Columbia, Herman 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. He was also required to visit local industries, such as metallurgical and machine shops, in order to understand how they functioned. He also obtained some practical mining experience during summer vacations in the mines of northern Michigan.

After graduating Hollerith became an assistant to one of his teachers, Professor Trowbridge, who was so impressed with his mind that he asked him to become his assistant. William Petit Trowbridge (1828–1892) was a mechanical engineer, military officer, and naturalist, who in 1879 was appointed Chief Special Agent to the Census Bureau, and took with him Hollerith, as a statistician. This appointment was very significant for the young engineer because it was in solving the problems of analyzing the large amounts of data generated by the 1880 US census that Hollerith was led to look for ways of manipulating data mechanically.

In 1881 Hollerith joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he taught mechanical engineering. However, he didn’t enjoy teaching, so he soon sought another job (although he left the academic world, he clearly was still attracted to certain aspects of it, and he was awarded a doctorate in 1890 at the Columbia School of Mines, for his tabulating systems.) Thus, in 1883 Hollerith obtained a post (assistant patent examiner) in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C.

In 1884, Hollerith resigned from the Patent Office and embarked on his main career as an independent inventor and entrepreneur. In the same year, he filed a patent application on his first statistics processing device, which used a continuous roll of paper and consisted of a mechanically-operated punch and an electrically-operated reader, expected to work on censuses for several states, but the job offers he expected did not materialize, so he accepted a position as the manager of the Mallinckrodt Brake Co. in St. Louis, Missouri.

By 1887 Hollerith moved back to New York. At that time he was entirely engaged in the design and improvement of his electric counting machines, and they proved to be a great success, as he won a contract from the Census Office when it reopened for the 1890 census, then his machines were used for censuses of Canada, Norway, Austria, Russia, and other countries.

Herman took eagerly to domesticity, following his marriage to Lucia on 15 Sep. 1890. Shortly after, the couple posed in front of their first home on Dumbarton Str. in Georgetown, Washington, DC.
Herman took eagerly to domesticity, following his marriage to Lucia on 15 Sep. 1890. Shortly after, the couple posed in front of their first home on Dumbarton Str. in Georgetown, Washington, DC.

In 1889 Hollerith met Lucia Beverly Talcott (born on 3 Dec. 1865 in Vera Cruz, Mexico where her father Charles Gratiot Talcott (1834-1867), a civil engineer, worked on railroad construction). On 15 Sep. 1890, as his punched-card business was beginning to produce substantial revenue, he married Lucia. They had six children: Lucia Beverly (1891-1982), Herman (1892-1976), Charles (1893-1972), Nannie Talcott (1898-1995), Richard (1901-1967), and Virginia (1902-1994).

In 1896, Hollerith formed the Tabulating Machine Company, which name was later changed to the Computer Tabulating Recording Company after a merger, and in 1924, the enterprise changed its name to the International Business Machines Corporation or IBM. 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.

In 1921 Hollerith retired to his farm in rural Maryland, where he spent the rest of his life raising Guernsey cattle.

Hollerith was, according to the statements of the few people who lived or worked with him in a close community, “a strange fellow”, “a peculiar man”, “closed”, “little accessible”, and “only living for his family and work”. He liked good cigars, fine wine, Guernsey cows, and money. And he ended up with a lot of each.

Herman Hollerith died of a heart attack on 17 November 1929, in Washington D.C, and was buried in the Hollerith family plot in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. His wife remained with their three daughters in the family home in Georgetown, and died at their estate in Mathews County, Virginia, on 4 August 1944.