The Formation of IBM: The Tabulating Machine Company

The third part of what became IBM was the Hollerith Tabulating Machine. Herman Hollerith was the son of German immigrants, and he works for the Treasury Department. And during that time, which is about 1880, the government could not compute the census in the time it would take to do another census, which is every 10 years. A census must be done every 10 years according to the constitution, so when the government put out a plea for help, Herman Hollerith invented this machine. This Hollerith Machine that we have here is original but not complete, and there are only three that we know of that are original. One is in the Smithsonian, one is here, and one is at the IBM Museum in (unknown) Germany. The way this machine worked is a census taker would come to your house, and on a piece of paper, she would write down the answers to questions that she would ask the family. And there were questions such as your sex, your race, your religion, things like that. Then, a key punch operator would have to punch the answers to those questions on a punch card. You can see the lady in the top right corner punching cards. She was reading the paper off a cylinder. She placed her paper on the cylinder for easier reading and then she would place the card on the keypunch, which is the second picture on the right of the easel, and you can see a stylus, one she would have to move back to the right field, and then press. That would make holes. She would put all the holes in for one person, and then to read the card you could see a drawing of the card reader in the lower right or photograph in the lower left, and you put the card on the flat surface, pull the lever down and wherever there's a needle sticking down it would fall through the holes and into a Mercury bath underneath, which would create an electric current and spin the dials. At least dials cannot be reset, these dials, one dial for each field on the census, so you'd have to read the value on the dial before you started your day’s run. And you could then read the value of the dial after you finished your computer run, compute each dial, one for each key demographic data. This other box here with the metal lids over the compartments is this order. The tabulating machine could be wired such that if you wanted all the females to sort together, for example, you would wire it, and then the lid would open so the human would know where to place the card in the bin with the open. So, it worked a little different than modern sorters. Also, take note that the flooring on each of the Platforms in this Museum are indicative of the flooring of the era. So, if you were working on one of Hollerith’s at this point in time, you'd be standing on a floor like you see here.

Something else to mention is the punch cards for the Hollerith Machine never changed size through history. The punch cards were the size of an 1890 dollar bill, because Hollerith worked for the treasury and he reused the boxes bills were stored in. Punch cards never change size after that in the hundred something years that they were in use.

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