A 5-inch floppy is a quaint relic today, but even it had a predecessor: the punch card. Invented by Herman Hollerith in 1887 to solve the problem of tabulating census data, punch cards were the standard for business accounting well into the latter half of the 20th century. They were also the foundation for Hollerith’s firm, the Tabulating Machine Company. His company merged with two others in 1911 to form the Computer-Tabulating-Recording Company — later renamed IBM.

Hollerith was born Feb. 29, 1860, in Buffalo, New York, to German immigrant parents. A 1972 article in the IBM employee publication Think declared this Leap Year birth date as “an unusual day” for “an unusual man.” Hollerith wasn’t a fan of school, so much so that he allegedly jumped out of a window to escape grade-school spelling. Thanks to a private tutor, he ultimately completed his studies and entered Columbia College at 16. He graduated three years later as a mining engineer.

The punch card revolutionizes the census

Following graduation, he went to work for his former professor, W.P. Trowbridge, on the 1880 census. Hollerith and his mentor, John Shaw Billings, realized the census’ current counting methods were insufficient to meet the government’s needs. Inspired by a loom that used punch cards to automatically manage weaving, Hollerith developed a punch card tabulating machine to tally data and even do cross-tabs. The punch card was tested using Baltimore mortality statistics in 1887, and Hollerith received a contract for the 1890 census.

Hollerith and the famous IBM executive Thomas J. Watson did not see eye to eye, and gradually Hollerith became less involved with IBM’s operations. He retired in 1921 to a Maryland farm, where he raised Guernsey cattle. He was “fully occupied with boats, bulls, and butter” until his death in 1929.

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Photo: Marcin Wichary used under Creative Commons 2.0

Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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