Tony Long 06.01.07 | 2:00 AM
1890: The U.S. Census Bureau uses a tabulating machine for the first time. Freed of the laborious process of hand-sorting its data, the bureau is able to produce a complete census within two years.
The machine was built by Herman Hollerith, a New York statistician. Hollerith undertook the project under contract from the Census Bureau, which had taken eight years to tabulate its 1880 census, making it effectively out of date before it appeared.
The problem was exacerbated by the mushrooming population of the United States. In 1790, when the first census was taken, the nation had 3.8 million people. By 1860 it had reached 31.8 million. By 1880, with the westward expansion of the nation and the growing urban population, another 15 million Americans were on the books.
It was clear to the census takers that their job would become impossible unless there was a great leap forward in tabulating technology. Enter Hollerith.
Data for his tabulator was taken using a punch card, known as the Hollerith card. For ease of storage it was made the same size as paper currency and the machine employed spring-loaded needles capable of reading whether or not a hole had been punched. An electric contact was made when a hole was recognized, which set off a bell and sent the data to a counter.
In the wake of this success, Hollerith established a company to market his machine. This company later merged with a couple of other firms and, eventually, IBM was born.