Electric Tabulation Machine

Photo of Electric Tabulation Machine

The month of April provokes a variety of thoughts in different people. While some may pleasantly think of its showers giving way to May flowers, many others are faced with more ominous thoughts of a looming tax deadline. As tele-filing and electronic forms become more popular, it is easy to forget about the ways such tasks were managed in the past. Could you imagine collecting data by means of an electric tabulating system? Not exactly sure what that means? If you're not too busy with your tax forms, read on...

Herman Hollerith was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1860, the son of German immigrants. He enrolled in the City College of New York at age 15 and graduated from the Columbia School of Mines at age 19 as a Mining Engineer with distinguished honors. Herman's first job was with the United States Census effort of 1880. He then taught mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and worked for the U.S. Patent Office as well. The young engineer began working on his tabulating system during his days at MIT, filing for the first patent in 1884. Hollerith invented his Electric Tabulating System to:

"...provide an apparatus or system which will reduce the labor necessary in the compilation of such statistics, which will increase the rapidity of making complicated tallies, and which will insure accuracy. In other words, the object of my invention is to generally facilitate the compilation and increase the scope of such statistics."

Hollerith's system was first tested on tabulating mortality statistics in late 1886. The United States Census Office used Hollerith's machine for the first time in tabulating census data punched on cards for the 1890 Federal Census, the nation's eleventh census. Data was recorded by punching holes in these cards, or strips of non-conducting paper, and then counting these by mechanical counters operated by electromagnets. Hollerith developed a hand-fed press that sensed the holes in the punched cards; a wire would pass through the holes into a cup of mercury beneath the card, closing the electrical circuit. This process triggered mechanical counters and sorter bins and tabulated the appropriate data.