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January 2016



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U.S. Census Bureau History: Herman Hollerith and Mechanical Tabulation


Portrait of Herman Hollerith
Herman Hollerith patented an electronic tabulating
machine on January 8, 1889. The Census Bureau used
his machines from the 1890 through 1950 censuses, after
which it replaced mechanical tabulation with computers.

January 8 marks the anniversary of Herman Hollerith's 1889 patent for an electronic tabulating machine that would revolutionize the processing and tabulation of data through the first half of the 20th century.

Hollerith was born in Buffalo, NY, in 1860, and earned an Engineer of Mines degree from the Columbia University School of Mines in 1879. He joined the U.S. Census Bureau in 1883. With encouragement from John Shaw Billings (noted for his pioneering work with vital statistics), Hollerith began experimenting with methods to speed tabulation using electro-mechanical devices.

Hollerith's interest in mechanical tabulation could not have come at a better time for the Census Bureau. The agency was inundated with 1880 Census data, and it expected even greater volumes of statistics in 1890. Hoping to ease the census clerks' burden, the agency invited inventors to submit tabulating devices to an 1888 competition. The inventor with the most efficient, time-saving invention would receive a contract to supply the equipment used to tabulate the 1890 Census. Three contestants accepted the challenge—the first two devices translated data collected in St. Louis, MO, from paper questionnaires to machine-readable data in 144.5 and 100.5 hours and sorted it into categories (e.g. age, sex, race, gender) in 44.5 and 55.5 hours, respectively. The device submitted by the third contestant—Herman Hollerith—translated the schedules' data in 72.5 hours and sorted it into categories in an astonishing 5.5 hours!

After his decisive win in the St. Louis data tabulation competition, Hollerith submitted a patent application—Art of Compiling Statistics to the U.S. Patent and Tradmark Office in September 1888, which issued his patent on January 8, 1889. Hollerith's electro-mechanical tabulating technology permitted the Census Bureau to tabulate, sort, and publish thousands of pages of data filling 25 census volumes, hundreds of Bulletins (on a variety of population, economic, and agricultural topics), a statistical compendium, a Statistical Atlas, and volumes of the annual Statistical Abstract of the United States. Despite the greater amount of data collected, the Census Bureau completed publication of the 1890 data 18 months sooner than it published the 1880 Census. In fact, Hollerith's tabulating machines and punch cards proved so efficient that the Census Bureau used improved versions of the technology into the 1950s when it replaced mechanical tabulation with computers and computer tape.

You can learn more about Herman Hollerith, data collection and tabulation, and the computing industry using census data and by exploring the Census Bureau's Web site. For example:

  • Herman Hollerith was born in Buffalo, NY, in 1860. In that year, the city's population was 81,129. At its peak in 1950, it had a population of 580,132. In 2014, the Census Bureau estimated Buffalo's population to be 258,703.
  • When Herman Hollerith began working at the Census Bureau in 1879, the U.S. population was approximately, 50.2 million. Census clerks tabulated data for nearly 63 million people using Hollerith's electronic tabulators in 1890. By 1951, when the Census Bureau installed UNIVAC I to replace mechanical tabulators, the U.S. population was approximately 151.2 million. The Census Bureau estimates that the U.S. population was 318.9 million in 2014.
  • The temporary "Census Office" was part of the U.S. Department of the Interior during the 1890 Census. Robert P. Porter (1889-1893) and Carroll D. Wright (1893-1897) served as superintendents of the census during the enumeration and publication of its data. The Census Bureau became a permanent agency within the Department of the Interior in 1902 and moved to the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903. The Census Bureau has been part of the U.S. Department of Commerce since it split from the Department of Labor in 1913.
  • In 1896, Hollerith established The Tabulating Machine Company in Washington, DC. In 1911, Hollerith's company and three others joined to form the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company in Endicott, NY. They renamed the company International Business Machines (IBM) in 1924. Headquartered in Armonk, NY, IBM's information technology leadership ranks it as the world's fifth most valuable brand according to Forbes Magazine Link to a non-federal Web site.
  • The data processing industry has grown considerably since Herman Hollerith revolutionized it with his electro-mechanical tabulator. During the 2012 Economic Census, the Census Bureau collected collected data from 14,689 establishments in the data processing, hosting, and other services industry (NAICS 518). Total employment in the industry was 436,253, with California (78,236), Texas (48,907), and New York (32,436) leading the nation.
  • The Census Bureau began replacing mechanical tabulators with computers when it installed UNIVAC I in 1951. UNIVAC I processed approximately 1,900 instructions per second and stored data on 4-pound reels of magnetic computer tape. Each reel, contained 1,200 feet of nickel-plated metal tape that stored about 3 megabytes of data. In comparison, an average home computers stores 500 gigabytes (500,000 megabytes) of data and can process 100 million or more instructions per second!
  • The Census Bureau first inquired about American's Internet use in 1997, finding that 56.7 million Americans aged 3 years and older (22.2 percent) used the Internet at school, home, and/or work. The 2013 American Community Survey found that 74.4 percent of the 116.3 million households that owned a computer also subscribed to Internet service.
  • Technology analysts estimate that popular video sharing Web site YouTube stores more than 500 petabytes of data. If YouTube data could be converted to UNIVAC I's magnetic computer tapes, it would require 1.8 quadrillion punch cards weighing approximately 2 billion tons or 180 billion reels of magnetic computer tape requiring 2.1 million miles of shelf space!

Clerk operating a Hollerith Machine

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued Herman Hollerith a patent for his mechanical tabulator on January 8, 1889. In it, he described
the steps an operator, like the one shown above, took to record census data from transcription to reporting the data electronically.




Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island
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Ellis Island


On January 1, 1892, Annie Moore became the first immigrant processed at New York's Ellis Island Immigration Station.

Approximately 12 million immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island before it closed in 1954.

On May 11, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson added Ellis Island to the Statue of Liberty National Monument.

Photo courtesy of the National Parks Service.













1890 Veterans Census
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This Month in Census History


A fire in the basement of the U.S. Department of Commerce destroyed or severely damaged most of the 1890 Census records on January 10, 1921.

Some 1890 records survive, including those for parts of the District of Columbia and counties in 10 states. Records from the 1890 Veterans Census, (like President Rutherford B. Hayes's record above) also are available at the National Archives and Records Administration.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.














Did You Know?


The Census Bureau's Current Population Survey first asked about home computer usage in 1984. In that year, 6.98 million households (8.2 percent) owned a computer. Computer ownership rose to 116.3 million (83.8 percent) according to data collected by the American Community Survey in 2013.




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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: January 28, 2019