The 2020 United States Census has been in the news lately as the U.S Department of Commerce gears up for its decennial count of the population as mandated by the U.S. Constitution. What you may not know is that 130 years ago, a Buffalo-born inventor revolutionized the tabulation of Census data with his computation machines, invented the data processing industry, founded the company that would become IBM and earned the title of “father of modern automatic computation.”
Herman Hollerith was born in Buffalo in 1860 to German immigrant parents. He attended City College and Columbia University School of Mines in New York City. Hollerith worked briefly on the 1880 U.S. Census where he saw firsthand the need to reduce the time and increase the accuracy of tabulating Census data. By 1882, Hollerith was teaching mechanical engineering at MIT, where he apparently did his first work with punch cards, a key aspect of his pending invention. In 1884, Hollerith filed a patent application describing an electro-mechanical tabulation machine:
“which consists in recording separate statistical items …by holes or combinations of holes punched in sheets… then counting or tallying such statistical items…by means of mechanical counters operated by electro-magnets the circuits through which are controlled by the perforated sheets.”
Hollerith’s invention was adopted by the U.S. Census Office and dramatically reduced the time needed to tabulate the 1890 Census results to only one year, compared to eight years for the 1880 Census. Hollerith’s work was recognized with a number of honors including the Medaille d’Or of the Paris Exposition, the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia’s highest award the Elliott Creason Medal, election to the Royal Statistical Society in London and an honorary doctorate from Columbia.
Hollerith soon founded the Tabulating Machine Company which introduced many innovations including a card punch operated by a keyboard and the removal of the upper right hand corner of punch cards to ensure their correct orientation in tabulating machines. Thereafter, punch cards were used in computing into the 1970s. In 1911, the Tabulating Machine Company merged with three other companies to form the Computing Tabulating Recording Company, which would ultimately be renamed International Business Machines (IBM) in 1924. By then, Hollerith was largely retired and he would pass away in Washington, D.C. in 1929.
Today the ability to process “Big Data” is a transformative technology. That is especially true in manufacturing where advances in Big Data and analytics are at the core of Digital Manufacturing. These technologies will be critical in the future of manufacturing and Industry 4.0, the so-called fourth industrial revolution, and it began here in WNY.