Herman Hollerith, the world's first statistical engineer, revolutionized the census and helped shape the foundation for modern day computers. Born in 1860, Hollerith studied first at the City College of New York and then at the Columbia School of Mines as an engineering student. Soon after earning his degree, Hollerith got a job at the U.S. Census bureau and met Dr. Billings, a man who would greatly influence his life. Both men saw a need for a device that would help make tabulating the census a more efficient and less daunting task. The 1880 census, for example, took eight years to unravel, and it was feared that the next census would consume even more time and resources to tabulate. A new method of tabulation was desperately needed as the population was growing and the country demographics were dynamically changing.
While teaching mechanical engineering at M.I.T and then working at the U.S. Patent Office in the 1880s, Hollerith devoted much time to developing the machine that he and Dr. Billings envisioned. His eventual success evolved from astute observation and creative innovation. He observed the way in which train operators punched holes in train tickets, and knew of Jacquard's loom, a weaving device that "read" patterns punched into cards. These ideas were the basis from which he devised his own machine, which used punched cards, rods, and electricity. In competition with other tabulation machines, the Hollerith machine worked more efficiently and held more data. It was the clear choice for the 1890 census and was therefore used to count and sort the census data. It is estimated that the efficiency of Hollerith's punched cards saved the U.S. Census bureau five million dollars.
In 1896, Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company to capitalize on his patents. Because he owned the rights to his machine, Hollerith demanded an astonishingly high price for the use of his machine in the 1900 census; it would have cost less to count the census data without the use of this new technology. Because of the cost of the 1900 census, the US government hungrily sought after the development of a different machine, which was created by James Powers and used in the 1910 census.
Powers soon created his own company to rival Hollerith's company which merged with another organization to become the Computer Tabulating and Recording Company. In 1921, Hollerith retired from years of serving as a consulting engineer, and saw his company change names once again in 1924, when it became the International Business Machine Company, or IBM. In 1929 Herman Hollerith passed away, leaving behind a punched card approach to computers that would be used well into the 1970s.
The above picture is Courtesy of Douglas W. Jones at the University of Iowa