Math in Computing

Mechanical and Electronic Calculating Devices

When was a mechanical calculating device first used for the American census?

When government officials estimated that the 1890 census would have to handle the data from more than 62 million Americans, there was a slight panic. After all, the existing system was slow and expensive, using tally marks in small squares on rolls of paper, which were then added together by hand. One estimate determined that such an endeavor would take about a decade to complete, which would be just in time to start the process all over again for the 1900 census. In desperation, a competition was set up to invent a device that could easily count the 1890 U.S. census.

Thus, in the 1880s, American inventor Herman Hollerith (1860–1929), who is also known as the father of modern automatic computation, presented his competition-winning idea. He used Jacquard’s punched cards to represent the population data, then read and collated the information with an automatic machine. With his Automatic Tabulating Machine—an automatic electrical tabulating device—Hollerith would put each individual’s data on a card. With a large number of clocklike counters, he would then accumulate the results. From there, he would use switches so the operators could instruct the machine to examine each card based on a certain characteristic, such as marital status, number of children, profession, and so on. It became the first such machine to read, process, and store information.

The machine’s usefulness did not end there, though. Eventually, Hollerith’s device became useful for a wide variety of statistical applications. Certain techniques used in the Automatic Tabulating Machine were also significant, helping in the eventual development of the digital computer. Hollerith’s company would also eventually become well-known, becoming International Business Machines, or IBM, in 1924.


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