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Herman Hollerith: Electric Tabulating Device, 1890

Breaking Point

In 1882, at the age of 22, Hollerith moved from the Census Bureau to become an instructor in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he continued to think about the problem posed at the Census Bureau—how to devise a mechanical method to process the rapidly expanding data from the next U.S. census?

Improvements were needed to handle the wider question list and expanding population (over sixty million) anticipated. By June 1, 1890, the population count and distribution would reflect the fourfold effect of industrialization, Civil War survivors, westward migration, and immigration, in addition to the larger population. The manual system was close to breaking point.

Two incidents contributed to Hollerith's solution:

Conversations with Census Bureau colleague, Dr. John Shaw Billings, about count mechanization and the Jacquard loom card system, and
Observations of a railroad conductor punching riders' tickets for identification purposes.

The Jacquard loom uses a series of punched pasteboard cards to mechanically control the warp threads in a loom against the weft threads, automatically creating duplicated patterns in the finished fabric. A railroad conductor punches holes around the edge of each passenger's ticket to signify details of the travel and traveler.