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At the urging of John Shaw Billings, Hollerith developed a mechanism using electrical connections to increment a counter, recording information. A key idea was that a datum could be recorded by the presence or absence of a hole at a specific location on a card. For example, if a specific hole location indicates marital status, then a hole there can indicate married while not having a hole indicates single. Hollerith determined that data in specified locations on a card, the now-familiar rows and columns, could be counted or sorted electromechanically. A description of this system, An Electric Tabulating System (1889), was submitted by Hollerith to Columbia University as his doctoral thesis, and is reprinted in Randell's book. On January 8, 1889, Hollerith was issued U.S. Patent 395,782, claim 2 of which reads:
Photo dated December 31, 1919 of census worker with Hollerith pantograph punch. The keyboard layout is for the US Census 1920 population card.
Replica of Hollerith tabulating machine with sorting box, circa 1890. The "sorting box" was an adjunct to, and controlled by, the tabulator. The "sorter", an independent machine, was a later development.
The herein-described method of compiling statistics, which consists in recording separate statistical items pertaining to the individual by holes or combinations of holes punched in sheets of electrically non-conducting material, and bearing a specific relation to each other and to a standard, and then counting or tallying such statistical items separately or in combination by means of mechanical counters operated by electro-magnets the circuits through which are controlled by the perforated sheets, substantially as and for the purpose set forth.
Hollerith had left teaching and begun working for the United States Census Bureau in the year he filed his first patent application. Titled "Art of Compiling Statistics", it was filed on September 23, 1884; U.S. Patent 395,782 was granted on January 8, 1889.
Hollerith initially did business under his own name, as The Hollerith Electric Tabulating System, specializing in punched card data processing equipment. He provided tabulators and other machines under contract for the Census Office, which used them for the 1890 census. The net effect of the many changes from the 1880 census: the larger population, the data items to be collected, the Census Bureau headcount, the scheduled publications, and the use of Hollerith's electromechanical tabulators, was to reduce the time required to process the census from eight years for the 1880 census to six years for the 1890 census.
In 1896 Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company (in 1905 renamed The Tabulating Machine Company). Many major census bureaus around the world leased his equipment and purchased his cards, as did major insurance companies. Hollerith's machines were used for censuses in England, Italy, Germany, Russia, Austria, Canada, France, Norway, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines, and again in the 1900 census.
He invented the first automatic card-feed mechanism and the first keypunch. The 1890 Tabulator was hardwired to operate on 1890 Census cards. A control panel in his 1906 Type I Tabulator simplified rewiring for different jobs. The 1920s removable control panel supported prewiring and near instant job changing. These inventions were among the foundations of the data processing industry and Hollerith's punched cards (later used for computer input/output) continued in use for almost a century.
^Report of the Commissioner of Labor In Charge of The Eleventh Census to the Secretary of the Interior for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1895 Washington, D.C., July 29, 1895 Page 9: "You may confidently look for the rapid reduction of the force of this office after the 1st of October, and the entire cessation of clerical work during the present calendar year. ... The condition of the work of the Census Division and the condition of the final reports show clearly that the work of the Eleventh Census will be completed at least two years earlier than was the work of the Tenth Census." Carroll D. Wright Commissioner of Labor in Charge.
^"IBM Archives: Frequently Asked Questions"(PDF). Some accounts of the forming CTR state that only three corporations were included. This reference notes that only three of the four corporations are represented in the CTR name. That may be the reason for the differing accounts.
^William Rodgers (1969). THINK: A Biography of the Watsons and IBM. p. 83.
^American Standard FORTRAN. American Standards Association, X3.9-1966. pp. 9, 10. "4.2.6 Hollerith Type. A Hollerith datum is a string of characters. This string may consist of any characters capable of representation in the processor. The blank character is a valid and significant character in a Hollerith datum."
Austrian, Geoffrey D. (1982). Herman Hollerith: The Forgotten Giant of Information Processing. Columbia University Press. p. 418. ISBN0-231-05146-8.
Truesdell, Leon E. (1965). The Development of Punch Card Tabulation in the Bureau of the Census 1890-1940. US GPO. Includes extensive, detailed, description of Hollerith's first machines and their use for the 1890 census.
Ashurst, Gareth (1983). Pioneers of Computing. Frederick Muller. pp. 77-90.
Cortada, James W. (1993). Before the Computer: IBM, NCR, Burroughs, & Remington Rand & the Industry they created, 1865 - 1956. Princeton. p. 344. ISBN0-691-04807-X.
Essinger, James (2004). Jacquard's Web: How a Hand-Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Engelbourg, Saul (1954). International Business Machines: A Business History (Ph.D.). Columbia University. p. 385. Reprinted by Arno Press, 1976, from the best available copy. Some text is illegible.
Heide, Lars. "Herman Hollerith". In Jeffrey Fear (ed.). Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present. German Historical Institute, 2017.
Heide, Lars (2009). Punched-Card Systems and the Early Information Explosion, 1880-1945. Johns Hopkins. ISBN978-0-8018-9143-4.
Hollerith, Herman (April 1889). "An Electric Tabulating System". The Quarterly, Columbia University School of Mines. X (16): 238-255. From the Columbia Univ. History site: This article is the basis for his 1890 Columbia Ph.D. Extracts reprinted in (Randell, 1982).
Hollerith, Herman (1890). In connection with the electric tabulation system which has been adopted by U.S. government for the work of the census bureau. Ph.D. dissertation. Columbia University School of Mines.
Hollerith, Herman (December 1894). "The Electrical Tabulating Machine". Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Blackwell Publishing. 57 (4): 678-682. doi:10.2307/2979610. JSTOR2979610. From Randell (1982),"... brief... fascinating article... describes the way in which tabulators and sorters were used on ... 100 million cards ... 1890 census."
Richard Hollerith Papers at Hagley Museum and Library. Richard Hollerith was the grandson of Herman Hollerith and part of this collection documents the sale and settlement of the Herman Hollerith estate following the death of his last remaining child, Virginia.