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“Art of Compiling Statistics”

My Chamber of Commerce Members’ Diary page for the 8th January tells me that “Dr. Herman Hollerith receives the first US patent for a mechanical tabulating machine 1889”. Intrigued, I did a quick search on the “espacenet” database, which revealed that he was in fact granted three US patents on 8th January 1889, Nos 395781, 2 and 3. The first two were each entitled “Art of Compiling Statistics”, while the third was “Apparatus for Compiling Statistics”. I rather like the idea of getting a patent for an “art”.

The patent specifications describe the problems of providing statistical tables from census returns, Hollerith apparently having begun working for the US Census Bureau in 1884, the year he filed his first patent application. Hollerith describes punching holes in a paper strip using a template which has holes for “Male”, “Female”, “Native”, “foreign” etc. When the paper is subsequently run through an electro-mechanical counting machine, the electrically-insulating paper prevents electrical contact except where a hole has been punched. Each contact is connected to a counter “such, for example, as is used for registering the revolutions of a steam engine”, permitting the numbers under any category to be summed. He describes the possibility of using punched cards instead of a paper strip.

Hollerith later formed the Tabulating Machine Company, and his machines were used in census bureaux around the world. The company was amalgamated with others to become the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, which was later renamed International Business Machines Corporation, perhaps now better known as IBM.

Punched paper tapes and cards were the original means for inputting data to computers, and this continued for many years. When we were taught basic programming at university in the early 1970’s, this involved creating stacks of punched cards and delivering them to the university computer centre (the nearest one got to the actual computer was the small hatch in the wall of the computer centre where you queued to hand in your stack, returning the following day to receive the print-out resulting from running the program – this usually revealed that you had missed a character in the 36th card, at which point the program had failed!).

We’ve moved on from punched cards and tape, but it’s true to say that Hollerith’s contribution was hugely influential in the development of computing.

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