Jun 082018

On this date in 1887, Herman Hollerith applied for US patent #395,781 for the ‘Art of Compiling Statistics’ which described his punched card calculator. The full patent application (with diagrams) can be found here: https://www.census.gov/history/pdf/hollerith_patent_01081889.pdf  The patent was granted on January 8, 1889. Hollerith’s inventions in the field of computing cannot be overstated, even though previous inventors had come up with the idea of using punched cards to store and relay data. Joseph Marie Jacquard is famous for developing the Jacquard loom which used a chain of punched cards to direct the raising and lowering of specific warp threads and the selection of shuttles for the weft, to automate the weaving of predetermined patterns.

Charles Babbage theorized on how punched cards could be used to input data into his “difference machines” and, as such, is usually called the “father of digital computing” or some such. But Hollerith actually built digital (mechanical) computing machines that worked, and his company was one of four that was eventually merged into what is now IBM.

Herman Hollerith was the youngest son of German immigrant Johann Georg Franz Hollerith and his second wife Franziska (nee Brunn) from Großfischlingen (near Neustadt an der Weinstraße). His father had been a Lutheran pastor and lecturer in classical languages, but he was imprisoned during the 1848 revolutions, and subsequently migrated to Buffalo, New York, where Herman was born and spent his early childhood, mostly getting into trouble in school. Herman was a “leap child” – born on February 29th, 1860, but that fact is unlikely to have been the reason for his rebelliousness as a boy. He entered the City College of New York in 1875 which at that time was somewhat equivalent to senior high school, and then transferred to Columbia University School of Mines where he graduated with an “Engineer of Mines” degree in 1879 at age 19. In 1882 Hollerith joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he taught mechanical engineering and conducted his first experiments with punched cards. He eventually moved to Washington, D.C., living in Georgetown, with a home on 29th Street and a business building at 31st Street and the C&O Canal, where today there is a commemorative plaque installed by IBM.

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 (NB – singular of “data”: ONE piece of information) 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 worked out a system whereby data located in specified rows and columns, could be counted or sorted electromechanically. He submitted his patent description of this system as “An Electric Tabulating System” (1889) to Columbia University as his doctoral thesis:

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 when he filed his first patent application, on September 23rd, 1884. 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 electronic computer input/output) continued in use for almost a century.

In 1911 four corporations, including Hollerith’s firm, were amalgamated to form a fifth company, the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR). Under the presidency of Thomas J. Watson, CTR was renamed International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) in 1924. Hollerith cards were named after Herman Hollerith (they eventually reached 128 columns width), as were Hollerith constants (a string constant declaration in some computer programming languages, sometimes called a Hollerith string).

IBM’s supercomputer, Watson (named for the founding president, of course), has famously been programmed to do numerous things that humans can do, such as play chess and compete in game shows, as part of a continuing investigation into Artificial Intelligence (AI). National Geographic in 2014 reported on efforts to program Watson to be able to create recipes — https://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/food/the-plate/2014/06/19/can-a-computer-cook/ First, the programmers input a list of potential ingredients, which by itself was able to generate 1018 (1 quintillion) combinations. Way too many choices for a human to sift through, but not for Watson. Programmers then input data including 35,000 recipes, which provided basic information about food composition and flavor pairings, along with the molecular chemistry of over a thousand different flavor ingredients—everything from black tea to Bantu beer. They also input data on psychophysics, which quantifies the tastes and flavor sensations that people tend to like. Watson’s mission impossible, based on these data, was to invent recipes that are both delicious and unconventional. Watson has come up with bear meat with saffron and sandalwood, avocado Napoleons, and kebabs featuring pork, chicken, strawberries, shitake mushrooms, pineapple, apples, curry, green onions, carrots, lemon, lime, and mint. There’s also Creole Shrimp-Lamb Dumpling, Baltic Apple Pie, Austrian Chocolate Burrito, and Bengali Butternut BBQ Sauce, (a blend of white wine, butternut squash, rice vinegar, dates, cilantro, tamarind, cardamom, and turmeric). Here’s Austrian Chocolate Burrito:

Watson’s Austrian Chocolate Burrito


Lean ground beef: 1 lb. browned and drained of excess fat
Zest of one orange
Pinch of ground cinnamon
Dark chocolate: 2 ounces, (70% cocoa solids or higher), very finely chopped
Apricot puree: ½ cup
Vanilla bean: ½ bean, split and scraped
Edamame : 1 ½ cups, shelled
Fine sea salt: as needed
Flour tortillas : 6
Vegetable shortening : melted, as needed
Edam cheese: 1 cup, grated
Queso fresco : ½ cup, crumbled


Brown the beef and drain. While still warm, stir in the orange zest, cinnamon, and 1oz chocolate. Season with salt, and reserve for assembly.

In a saucepan, combine the apricot purée and vanilla and slowly reduce over medium heat to roughly ¼ cup. Remove from heat and stir in ½ oz chocolate. Cool and reserve for assembly.

Next, blanch the edamame in boiling salted water for about 1 minute, then drain and shock in ice water. Transfer the edamame to a food processor and pulse to achieve a rough textured paste. Season with salt and reserve for assembly.

Watson does not indicate how the assembly process takes place, but it ought to be simple enough to divide the fillings into six, layer them on tortillas and roll them up. It does not look horrid – not unlike a Mexican mole in fact (minus the hot peppers). Give it a try and let me know.

  4 Responses to “Punched Card Computing”

  1. Sadly there was some use made of punch card technology during the run up to WW2 https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_and_the_Holocaust

  2. […] Hollerith’s Machine Punched Paper Card […]

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