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In 1804, a French weaver named Joseph-Marie Jacquard created a way of automatically controlling the warp and weft of thread on a loom by punching holes in cards to record fabric patterns.  It was the first use of punched cards to direct a mechanical process, but the idea was later applied to other functions, including programming player pianos and computers.

The man who invented the first electric machine to read punch cards was Herman Hollerith (1860-1929), who earned a degree in engineering from Columbia University School of Mines in 1879 and worked on the United States Census the next year.  While lecturing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the 1880s, he took Jacquard’s concept of punched cards as the basis for recording various census data (age, marital status, profession, etc.) and then invented an electric machine able to read the results.  Operators pressed switches instructing the machine to examine categories on the cards, and the results were tabulated by clock-like counters.  In 1886, Hollerith successfully tested his tabulating system by recording and reporting vital statistics for the Department of Health in Baltimore, Maryland.

In 1889, Hollerith received a patent and won a contest to tabulate the 1890 national census.  An article, “Taking the Eleventh Census,” published in the January 11, 1890 issue of Harper’s Weekly, mentioned in the final column, “There is also a suggested plan of tabulating by electrical appliances.”  In fact, the Hollerith Tabulating Machine reduced the tabulating process by years, saved taxpayers millions of dollars, and earned the inventor a Ph.D. from Columbia (1890).  Over the next decade, his tabulating machine was used in the censuses of Austria, Canada, Norway, and Russia.  A discussion of the role Hollerith’s machines would play in the 1900 U.S. census appeared in the August 19, 1899 Harper’s Weekly, with a diagram of the punch card and photographs of the punching machine, the tabulating machine, and tabulating records.

In 1911, Hollerith’s Tabulating Machine Company merged with the Computing Scale Company and the International Time Recording Company to form the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR), which changed its name to International Business Machines (IBM) in 1924.  It is with some justification that Hollerith’s Tabulating Machine Company has been called “essentially the world’s first computer company.” 

Harper's Weekly References
1) January 11, 1890, p. 26, col. 4
article, Hollerith’s Tabulating Machine & census

2) August 19, 1899, p. 821, col. 1-3
illustrated article, “Plans for the Twelfth Census”

Sources Consulted

“Computer History Timeline.”  Computer Tech On-line.

Cruz, Frank da.  “The Hollerith Tabulating Machine.”  Columbia University Computing History.

“Herman Hollerith’s Tabulating Machines.”  Maxfield & Montrose Interactive Inc.

“Hollerith’s Punched Cards.”  Maxfield & Montrose Interactive Inc.

“IBM through the Years:  Year 1886.”  IBM Archives.

“IBM through the Years:  Year 1911.”  IBM Archives.

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