Herman Hollerith

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Herman Hollerith
Herman Hollerith circa 1888
Born (1860-02-29)February 29, 1860
Buffalo, New York
Died November 17, 1929(1929-11-17) (aged 69)
Washington, D.C.
Resting place Oak Hill Cemetery
Education City College of New York (1875)
Columbia University School of Mines (1879)
Occupation inventor, businessman
Known for electromechanical tabulation of punched card data; IBM
Title Ph.D. (1890, Columbia University)
Spouse(s) Lucia Beverley Talcott (1865-12-03)December 3, 1865–August 4, 1944(1944-08-04) (aged 78) (m. 1890–1929)[1]
  1. Lucia Beverley (1891–1982)
  2. Herman (1892–1976)
  3. Charles (1893–1972)
  4. Nannie Talcott (1898–1985)
  5. Richard (1900–1967)
  6. Virginia (1902–1994)[2]
Awards Elliott Cresson Medal (1890)
World's Columbian Exposition, Bronze Medal (1892)
National Inventors Hall of Fame (1990)
Medaille d'Or, Exposition Universelle de 1889

Herman Hollerith (February 29, 1860 – November 17, 1929) was an American inventor who developed an electromechanical punched card tabulator to assist in summarizing information and, later, accounting. He was the founder of The Tabulating Machine Company that was consolidated in 1911 with three other companies to form the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, later renamed IBM. Hollerith is regarded as one of the seminal figures in the development of data processing.[3] His invention of the punched card tabulating machine marks the beginning of the era of semiautomatic data processing systems, and his concept dominated that landscape for nearly a century.[4][5]

Personal life[edit]

Herman Hollerith was born the son of German immigrant Prof. Georg Hollerith from Großfischlingen (near Neustadt an der Weinstraße) in Buffalo, New York, where he spent his early childhood.[6] He entered the City College of New York in 1875, graduated from the Columbia University School of Mines with an "Engineer of Mines" degree in 1879 at age 19, and completed his Ph.D. there in 1890.[4] In 1882 Hollerith joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he taught mechanical engineering and conducted his first experiments with punched cards.[7] He eventually moved to Washington, D.C., living in Georgetown, with a home on 29th Street and a factory for manufacturing his tabulating machines at 31st Street and the C&O Canal, where today there is a commemorative plaque installed by IBM. He died in Washington D.C. of a heart attack.

Electromechanical tabulation of data[edit]

Main article: Hollerith machines

At the urging of John Shaw Billings,[8] Hollerith developed a mechanism using electrical connections to trigger a counter, recording information. A key idea was that data could be encoded by the locations of holes in a card. Hollerith determined that data punched in specified locations on a card, in the now-familiar rows and columns, could be counted or sorted mechanically. A description of this system, An Electric Tabulating System (1889), was submitted by Hollerith to Columbia University as his doctoral thesis, and is reprinted in Randell's book.[9] On January 8, 1889, Hollerith was issued U.S. Patent 395,782,[10] claim 2 of which reads:

Hollerith tabulating machine and sorting box.[11]

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.

Inventions and businesses[edit]

Hollerith punched card

Hollerith had left teaching and begun working for the United States Census Bureau in the year he filed his first patent application. Titled "Art of Compiling Statistics", it was filed on September 23, 1884; U.S. Patent 395,782 was granted on January 8, 1889.[12]

Hollerith card puncher used by the United States Census Bureau

Hollerith built machines under contract for the Census Office, which used them for the 1890 census. That census, using the tabulators, required only six years; the previous 1880 census had taken eight years.[13] [14] In 1896 Hollerith started his own business when he founded The Tabulating Machine Company. Many major census bureaus around the world leased his equipment and purchased his cards, as did major insurance companies. Hollerith's machines were used for censuses in England, Italy, Germany, Russia, Austria, Canada, France, Norway, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines, and again in the 1900 census.[4] To make his system work, he invented the first automatic card-feed mechanism and the first keypunch (that is, a punch operated by a keyboard); a skilled operator could punch 200–300 cards per hour. He also invented a tabulator. The 1890 Tabulator was hardwired to operate only on 1890 Census cards. A plugboard control panel in his 1906 Type I Tabulator allowed it to do different jobs without being rewired. These inventions were among the foundations of the data processing industry and Hollerith's punched cards (later used for recording machine-readable computer programs) continued in use for almost a century.

In 1911 four corporations, including Hollerith's firm, were consolidated to form the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR).[15] Under the presidency of Thomas J. Watson, it was renamed International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) in 1924.

Death and legacy[edit]

Hollerith is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C.,[16] as is his son, Herman Hollerith Jr.

Hollerith cards were named after the elder Herman Hollerith, as were Hollerith constants (also sometimes called Hollerith strings), an early type of string constant declaration (in computer programming).

His great-grandson, the Rt. Rev. Herman Hollerith IV is the Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of Southern Virginia, and another great-grandson, Randolph Marshall Hollerith, is an Episcopal priest in Richmond, Virginia.[17][18]


  1. ^ "Lucia Beverly Talcott". ancestry.com. Retrieved 28 Feb 2015. 
  2. ^ "Lucia Beverly Talcott Hollerith (1865 - 1944)". Find A Grave Memorial. Retrieved 28 Feb 2015. 
  3. ^ Cambell-Kelly, Martin; Aspray, William (1996). Computer: a history of the information machine. Basic Books. p. 22. 
  4. ^ a b c Da Cruz, Frank (28 Mar 2011). "Herman Hollerith". www.columbia.edu. Columbia University. Retrieved 28 Feb 2014. 
  5. ^ Brooks, Frederick P.; Iverson, Kenneth E. (1963). Automatic Data Processing. Wiley. p. 94 "semiautomatic". 
  6. ^ "Herman Hollerith (1860-1929)". www.hnf.de. Paderborn: Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum. 18 Apr 2012. Retrieved 28 Feb 2014.  External link in |work= (help)
  7. ^ O'Connor, J.J.; Robertson, E.F. "Herman Hollerith". The MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive. School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St Andrews, Scotland. Retrieved 5 March 2013. 
  8. ^ Lydenberg, Harry Miller (1924). John Shaw Billings: Creator of the National Medical Library and its Catalogue, First Director of the New York Public Library. American Library Association. p. 32. 
  9. ^ Randell (ed.), Brian (1982). The Origins of Digital Computers, Selected Papers (3rd ed.). Springer-Verlag. ISBN 0-387-11319-3. 
  10. ^ US patent 395782, Herman Hollerith, "Art of compiling statistics", issued 1889-01-08 
  11. ^ The "sorting box" was controlled by the tabulator. The "sorter", an independent machine, was a later development. See: Austrian, Geoffrey D. (1982). Herman Hollerith: Forgotten Giant of Information Processing. Columbia University Press. pp. 41, 178–179. ISBN 0-231-05146-8. 
  12. ^ The Invention and Development of the Hollerith Punched Card
  13. ^ Report of the Commissioner of Labor In Charge of The Eleventh Census to the Secretary of the Interior for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1895 Washington, D.C., July 29 1895 Page 9: {{You may confidently look for the rapid reduction of the force of this office after the 1st of October, and the entire cessation of clerical work during the present calendar year. ... The condition of the work of the Census Division and the condition of the final reports show clearly that the work of the Eleventh Census will be completed at least two years earlier than was the work of the Tenth Census.}} Carroll D. Wright Commissioner of Labor in Charge
  14. ^ Wright's "Two years earlier" is not simply the result of using the Hollerith tabulators; the time to complete a census is also dependent on details such as: headcount, items to be tabulated/reported, and the publication schedule.
  15. ^ "IBM Archives: Frequently Asked Questions" (PDF).  Some accounts of the consolidation forming CTR state that only three corporations were included. This reference notes that only three of the four corporations are represented in the CTR name. That may be the reason for the differing accounts.
  16. ^ http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=14503488
  17. ^ http://hamptonroads.com/2009/02/new-epsicopal-bishop-face-tough-challenges
  18. ^ http://www.timesdispatch.com/entertainment-life/virginia-diocese-to-install-bishop/article_58501855-217e-5dc3-b70d-6010723507cd.html

Further reading[edit]

  • Austrian, G.D. (1982). Herman Hollerith: The Forgotten Giant of Information Processing. Columbia. ISBN 0-231-05146-8. 
  • Heide, Lars (2009). Punched-Card Systems and the Early Information Explosion, 1880-1945. Johns Hopkins. ISBN 0-8018-9143-4. 
  • Essinger, James (2004). Jacquard's Web: How a Hand-Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

External links[edit]

Hollerith's grave at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown in Washington, D.C.