From the U.S. Constitution to IBM

The 1890 Census, Hermann Hollerith, and the origins of IBM


Historically there have been two forces which have driven the development of the electronic computer. The first was the need for fast and accurate scientific computation. The second was the need for better "data processing" which coincided with the industrial revolution and the rise of government sponsored social programs. This paper is an exploration of one facet of the second force where the rise of IBM can be indirectly traced to the U.S. Constitution and the Crisis of the 1880 Census.

The Census and the U.S. Constitution

The U.S. Constitution mandated a census for the purpose of apportioning members to the House of Representatives.
"The actual enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States and within every subsequent term of 10 years, in such manner as they by law direct" (U.S. Constitution - Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3)

A census was required so that the proper number of congressional representatives could be elected from each state.

The Crisis of the 1880 Census

During the late 19th century the population of the United States rose dramatically.
     Year      Census Population
     1850        23.191 million
     1860        31.442 million
     1870        38.558 million
     1880        50.198 million  <- 9 years to complete census!
     1890        62.979 million
     1900        76.211 million
Unfortunately, the 1880 Census took 9 years to complete at a cost of 5.8 million dollars! There was concern that the 1890 census would not be completed before the 1900 Census.

Taking the Census required a number of steps, all of them labor intensive.

  1. Raw Data for each household was taken by Census enumerators. This was written down on large sheets of paper called "schedules".
  2. The schedules were sent to Washington where the raw data was manually transferred to "tally sheets" using "slashes" (5 to a box) to mark different categories. There were six major tallies to complete. For example the first broke down the population by sex, race, and birthplace.
  3. Finally the tally sheets were transferred to consolidation sheets whose figures were combined to yield final population totals.
However, the problem was not in the collection of the data; it was with the processing of the data.

Hermann Hollerith (1860 - 1929)

Born in Buffalo N.Y and educated at Columbia University School of Mines (1879) Hermann Hollerith worked on the 1880 Census where he met Dr. John Shaw Billings, head of the division of vital statistics. During a dinner conversation Billings casually suggested to Hollerith the idea of mechanically tabulating Census results using cards with punches on the edges. Hollerith thought he could work the details for such a solution but Billings indicated no interest in pursuing the idea further.

Hollerith first worked on an electro-mechanical paper tape device but problems with the design caused him to abandon this approach (1882). He then switched to the idea of using a Punch Card system which used a 3/16 inch hole located in 1/4 inch squares to record information. The presence or absence of a hole would indicate the existence or non-existence of some characteristic or item of data.

Hollerith claimed he got this idea from "punch photograph cards" used by rail road officials. Used to prevent the theft of railroad tickets from passengers, conductors would "record" the physical characteristics of the ticket owner (e.g. eye color, hair color) by punching specially marked areas on the edge of the card. Hollerith used holes punched through the card, not on the edge of the card.

 Hollerith also invented equipment to punch, read, and sort punch cards. Specifically he invented

Hollerith's machines were ready for 1890 Census

Hollerith's Tabulator Machines and the 1890 Census

After first beating out two other systems in a contest arranged by Census bureau, Hollerith rented his tabulator machines to the U.S. Census Bureau for the 1890 Census. Work began in July of 1890 and by August 16, an "unofficial tally" of the United States population was obtained (officially announced in October). Since Census clerks were able to handle between 7000 and 8000 cards per day the greater speed of processing data permitted a more comprehensive census.

In the end, the 1890 Census was completed in 7 years at a cost of 11.5 million dollars. While this might seem like a long time (and it certainly cost more money), it should be noted that a more complete census was actually done. Even in the 1890's there was a temptation to use "technology" to the limit.

Hollerith was paid $750,000 for the rent of his machines

From The Tabulating Machine Company to IBM

Hollerith's company, the Tabulating Machine Company, rented out machines to other customers both government (Austria, Canada, France, Russia) and private (New York Central RR, Marshall Fields, Penn Steel). The company was profitable but due to its policy of renting instead of selling machines, it had cash flow problems. The Tabulating Machine Company merged in 1911 with 3 other companies, International Time Recording Co, Bundy Manufacturing, and Computing Scale of America to become Computing Tabulating Recording Company. In 1924 its name was changed to International Business Machines - IBM.

Information for this Web page was obtained in part from Bit by Bit: An Illustrated History of Computers by Stan Augarten; Tichnor & Fields; 1984. This is an excellent book and well worth reading for more information on the history of computers.

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