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Icons of Progress

The Punched Card Tabulator

IBM100 The Punched Card Tabulator iconic mark

Herman Hollerith’s first tabulating machines opened the world’s eyes to the very idea of data processing. Along the way, the machines also laid the foundation for IBM.

In 1880, as new arrivals flooded into the United States and the population exploded, the US census turned into an administrative nightmare. The work of measuring and recording the fast-growing country’s population was maddeningly slow and expensive. Clerks would need eight years to finish compiling the census. One of those clerks was Herman Hollerith who got his graduate degree in engineering from Columbia University, in New York, NY, at the age of 19.

A manager at the bureau suggested that there ought to be a machine that could count the population more quickly. This was the dawn of the age of machines, after all—locomotives, steam-powered mills, computing scales, steam shovels. There was a feeling in the air that machines should be able to do anything, including count. Hollerith agreed, and set out to build a counting machine.

He planned to make it run using a brand new technology of that time: electricity. But its core component was something much more familiar and decidedly nontechnical: the hole.

More than 80 years before, in France, Joseph Marie Jacquard created a way to automate steam-powered weaving looms, guiding them using a series of holes punched into cardboard cards. The cards contained columns and rows of holes arranged in different patterns. Hooks on gears would reach into the cards. If they found a hole, they’d pass through and engage with the thread; if they did not, the hooks were blocked and did nothing. Different patterns punched in the cards produced different textile designs.

A few decades later, English mathematician Charles Babbage picked up on the Jacquard design as he tried to build a steam-powered information processor. Although he never managed to get his Difference Engine built, Babbage laid out detailed designs for what was intended as a polynomial calculating machine comprising gears and crankshafts. For data input, metal fingers would reach in to read punched card holes, much as the hooks did on Jacquard’s loom.

Hollerith knew of Babbage’s and Jacquard’s use of punched cards. He had also observed train conductors punching tickets to identify each passenger. For that matter, in the late 1800s the first player pianos, which responded to holes punched on rolls of thick paper, were becoming popular. Hollerith was able to piece together the best of those concepts, and use electricity in a new way.

In Hollerith’s design, each card—roughly 3 inches by 7 inches—held one person’s data. [Read more about the Icon of Progress, the IBM Punched Card.] A clerk would read the census rolls and punch that citizen’s details in the appropriate places on the card. The machine operator would then place the card on a press attached to the tabulating machine and close the cover. This would push a field of pins down onto the card. The pins that made their way through the holes contacted small cups partly filled with mercury, completing an electrical circuit. This transmitted electrical impulses to the dial-like counters on the machine and the results were registered on the counter board.

The Census Bureau put Hollerith’s machine to work on the 1890 census. It did the job in just two years, and saved the government US$5 million. After that, Hollerith turned his invention into a business: the Tabulating Machine Company. By 1911, Hollerith’s tabulator had been used to count the populations of Austria, Canada, Denmark, England, Norway, the Philippines, Russia, Scotland and Wales.

Not only could the machines count faster, but they could also understand information in new ways. By rearranging the wires on a tabulating machine, the contraption could sort through thousands or millions of cards. Businesses soon realized that the information on those cards didn’t have to be about members of the population—the data could be about a product, or an insurance customer, or a freight car on a rail line. The tabulator allowed users to learn things they never knew they could learn, and at speeds no one thought possible.

Tabulating machines soon made their way into the back offices of department stores, electric and gas utilities, chemical and drug manufacturers, steelworks, oil companies and, especially, railroads. In 1896, New York Central and Hudson River Railroad adopted the Hollerith system to audit freight accounts and compile statistics relating to freight traffic—marking the first business application of the Hollerith Machine. By the time IBM Italy installed the tabulating system for Ferrovie dello Stato (state-owned Italian Railways) in 1928, nearly all of the railroads in the United States were using Hollerith tabulating machines to manage schedules, inventory and freight. Railways in England, South Africa, Argentina, Mexico and other countries were also seeing the benefits of the system by this time. When asked in the mid-1890’s why he did not apply his machines to railroad accounting, Hollerith responded, “One good reason and that was that I did not know the first damned thing about railroad accounts.”

On July 6, 1911, Hollerith agreed to sell his Tabulating Machine Company to financier Charles Flint for US$2,312,100, and the company became part of Flint’s Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company. In the 1920s, C-T-R evolved into IBM. [Read more about the Icon of Progress, The Making of IBM.]

Hollerith’s basic design—electromechanical counters reading cardboard punched cards—was the dominant form of data processing from 1890 until commercial electronic computers arrived in the 1950s. That’s more than a half-century of transforming business in virtually every industry in the world. IBM chief Thomas Watson Sr. realized that Hollerith’s machines were the future of his growing company, and he focused research and development on punched card equipment. The tabulating machine made IBM into one of the few major corporate success stories of the Great Depression, and launched the company on its path to becoming a computing giant.


The Team

Selected team members who contributed to this Icon of Progress:

  • Herman Hollerith Created the first mechanical punched card tabulator
  • Dr. John Shaw Billings Gave Hollerith the inspiration to pursue a mechanical solution to the problem of processing the census data by automated means