It was on this day, 8 June 1887, that Herman Hollerith filed for United States Patent 395,781 – his second – for an electro-mechanical tabulating machine which used punch cards to record and store data. Though punched cards had been used for more than a century to control looms and to program music boxes, clock organs, and the like, Hollerith was the first to use them to tabulate data electronically. As such, this patent represents a major milestone in the evolution of the Information Age and of the computers which are so completely ubiquitous in our daily lives. Hollerith’s original tabulators were not programmable, and were built to perform specific tasks, but later modifications permitted limited, dynamic repurposing of the tabulators, a precursor of true programmability.
Hollerith’s tabulators were first used by the U.S. Census Bureau to tabulate the data on the 1890 Census. Previous census data had taken many years to produce; the first reports of the 1890 Census were available in late 1891. Such an impressive result led to an immediate interest in the machines and their potential business applications. Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company in 1896. This corporation later merged with two competitors to form the Computing Tabulating Recording Company, which in 1924 under the leadership of Thomas J. Watson was rechristened the International Business Machines Company, better known as IBM.
There are numerous sources about Hollerith and his patents, but the definitive material resides with The United States Patent and Trademark Office. These days, one can use that child of Hollerith’s heritage, “The Web,” to access the USPTO database. Search for Hollerith, and you will find a wealth of data, including drawings of his machines. Take a look at:
Flower Mound, Texas
The newest computer can merely compound, at speed,
the oldest problem in the relations between human beings,
and in the end the communicator will be confronted with the old problem,
of what to say and how to say it.
— Edward R. Murrow