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The Story>Hollerith Tabulating Machine

Hollerith's system was first tested on tabulating mortality statistics in late 1886. The United States Census Office used Hollerith's machine for the first time in tabulating census data punched on cards for the 1890 Federal Census, the nation's eleventh census. Data was recorded by punching holes in these cards, or strips of non-conducting paper, and then counting these by mechanical counters operated by electromagnets. Hollerith developed a hand-fed press that sensed the holes in the punched cards; a wire would pass through the holes into a cup of mercury beneath the card, closing the electrical circuit. This process triggered mechanical counters and sorter bins and tabulated the appropriate data.

Additional images of the counters: counters collecting data, a single counter, counter close-up with Hollerith name, and a look inside a counter.


Data collected during the 1890 census included: color or race; gender; age; relationship that each person had to the head of the family; profession, occupation, or trade; number of months unemployed during the census year; whether sick, disabled, crippled, maimed or bedridden; deaf, mute or blind; whether or not the person attended school during the census year; ability to read or write; the place of birth of the person; and finally, the place of birth of the person's father and mother.

1930s-era punch card Hollerith's system-including punch, tabulator, and sorter-allowed the official 1890 population count to be tallied in six months. The system was again used for the 1891 census in Canada, Norway, and Austria, and later for the 1897 census in Russia. From 1908 on, the Hollerith Punched Card System-now consisting of a card punch, a Gang punch, a vertical sorting machine and a non-printing tabulator-was exclusively used in industrial, commercial, and similar areas for cost accounting, sales analysis, wage accounting, and a few other applications.

Note: The objects pictured above are part of The Franklin Institute's protected collection of objects. The images are The Franklin Institute.
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The Story>page three

Last Modified: 3 Jun 2001