As a schoolboy growing up in New York city in the 1870s, Herman Hollerith often managed to sneak out of the schoolroom just before spelling lessons. His teacher noticed and one day locked the door; Hollerith responded by jumping out of the second-floor window. Difficult, easily bored, but clearly brilliant, Hollerith gained admission to the School of Mines of Columbia College (now the School of Engineering and Applied Science) and graduated with distinction and an engineering degree in 1879. He was 19.

One of his Columbia professors, William P. Trowbridge, invited Hollerith to join him in Washington, DC. Trowbridge had been appointed as a chief special agent for the 10th (1880) US Census and was responsible for the Report on Power and Machinery Employed in Manufactures. He hired Hollerith to write the section titled “Steam and Water Power Used in the Manufacture of Iron and Steel.”

But being the kind of person who easily got bored, Hollerith found that working on the report wasn’t enough. So in his spare time, he worked for John Shaw Billings, head of the census office’s Division of Vital Statistics. It was there that Hollerith got the idea to mechanize the repetitive tabulations involved in census work. Billings suggested that it might be possible to store information about people as notches in the sides of cards. This wasn’t such a revolutionary idea: the Jacquard loom used punch cards to control weaving patterns, Charles Babbage had envisioned using punch cards for his Analytical Engine, and a player piano that played music as dictated by holes in a long roll of paper had been demonstrated at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876.

Hollerith thought a census machine might have great commercial potential, and he asked Billings to join him in a venture to develop and commercialize it. Billings declined; drawn to organizing information rather than mechanizing it, he would go on to become the first director of the New York Public Library. But Francis Amasa Walker, the head of the 10th census, likely found Hollerith’s idea extremely interesting.

Walker, who’d been born to a wealthy Boston family and went to Amherst, was highly regarded for his work in economics and had been appointed chief of the US Bureau of Statistics in 1869, after serving in the Civil War as an enlisted soldier and then a commissioned officer in the Union Army. Nominated to be superintendent of the ninth (1870) census at age 29, he set out to reform the census by making it more scientific and efficient—and by eliminating the influence of politics on the official statistics. He didn’t reach that last goal, but his work was so well respected that he was appointed superintendent of the 10th census in April 1879.

In the fall of 1881, Walker left government service to become the third president of MIT. The following year, he and George F. Swain, an instructor in civil engineering, persuaded Hollerith to join the

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By: Tate Ryan-Mosley
Title: Punching in
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Published Date: Wed, 19 Aug 2020 03:55:00 +0000




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