Herman Hollerith (1860-1929)

Herman Hollerith is the father of modern machine data processing. His invention of the punched card machine marked the beginning of the automatic data processing age. Whereas punched cards had previously been used to control looms, Hollerith now used them to store data.

A tinkering inventor

The son of German immigrants, Herman Hollerith was born on 29th February 1860 in Buffalo, New York. His interest in technology was aroused in his youth. It was important for him to study engineering so that he would be able to use his inventive drive in his work. The actual subject was of secondary importance, and he successfully completed a course of study at the School of Mines, Columbia College, New York City.

The punched card: A revolutionary data career

He developed his idea of an electrical counting and sorting system in 1880, while working for the U.S. Bureau of the Census, where he became aware of the problems of government statistics. As an inventor and engineer, Hollerith regarded it as his task to design a machine that could evaluate the data fast. By the middle of the 1880s, he had completed his first punched card system. It was in 1889, however, that Hollerith rose to fame when he presented his invention at the World Exposition in Paris.

The machines were first used in a major project for the 11th census in the USA in 1890. 62 million punched cards were evaluated by 43 Hollerith machines. Whereas it had taken eight years to evaluate the tenth census, this census was completed in just three years.

A global player's pathfinder

This success induced Hollerith to found the Tabulating Machine Company. Although the need for automatic data processing was growing, he only made half-hearted attempts to boost sales. Throughout his life, Hollerith felt that he was an inventor rather than an entrepreneur. The technical solution of a problem was far more important to him than the business success of his inventions.

His unconventional character and violent temper made it more and more difficult to run the company, with the result that it was sold to the Computer Tabulating Recording Company in 1911, a company that was renamed as the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) in 1924. He acted as a consultant for the company for some years, but finally withdrew into private life.