Mathematical Treasure: Statistical Tabulator of Benjamin Wood

Peggy A. Kidwell (National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

IBM Statistical Tabulator Used by Benjamin Wood

IBM Statistical Tabulator, 1929, Smithsonian Institution negative number 92-1753.

From the 1890s, Americans built machines called tabulating machines to compile statistics. First used by the U.S. Census Bureau, they were adopted by businesses carrying out large numbers of routine calculations and, more slowly, by scientists and mathematicians.

The IBM statistical tabulator is a specially built tabulator, designed to correlate test results and produce scientific tables. It read data from punched cards and from entries in any of ten 10-digit counters. It also multiplied numbers together, summed the products, and printed these out. Wiring of a plugboard determined the precise sequence of operations performed.

In the late 1920s, Benjamin Wood, a young psychologist at Columbia University, wrote to several manufacturers requesting assistance in the design of equipment for scoring psychological tests. James D. Watson, president of IBM, offered his assistance in the form of standard IBM machines and the help of IBM engineers in designing special models like this one. The Columbia machine, as it was sometimes called, was used both in test grading and in the production of astronomical tables, long a concern of mathematical physicists. Although it was soon superseded by other IBM equipment, its success inspired Wood to consider other inventions, particularly machines that scored tests directly from forms marked in pencil, eliminating the need for punch cards. Such machines and score sheets would be used for decades. More generally, scholarly use of tabulating equipment spread throughout the United States.

This object, and other tabulating machines in the collections of the National Museum of American History, are shown and described at the website

Index of Mathematical Treasures

Index of Mathematical Objects