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Mathematical Treasure: Scientific American on Hollerith's Tabulator

Sidney J. Kolpas (Delaware County Community College)

Herman Hollerith (1860–1929) was born to German immigrants in Buffalo, NY. He enrolled at the City College of New York in 1875 and in 1879 graduated from the Columbia University School of Mines, which granted him a PhD in 1880. When he briefly worked as a statistician for the Census Office before the 1880 census, he realized that a faster method than hand counting was urgently needed to tabulate census data. As set forth in Article 1, Section 2, of the US Constitution, a national census is required every ten years for the purpose of congressional reapportionment of the 435 seats of the House of Representatives among the 50 states.

A director of the census, John Shaw Billings, suggested modeling the device on the Jacquard loom, an automatic weaving machine controlled by coded punch cards. Indeed, Hollerith designed a machine that tabulated results by noting the location of holes on individual census data cards and passing the information through an electric wire to mechanical counters. In 1887, as the hand-counted 1880 census was finally finished, Hollerith tested his tabulating machine on Baltimore's mortality numbers. The results were so promising that the Census Office awarded him a contract for the 1890 census.

Hollerith's tabulating system performed as promised, completing the count in six months and providing information about a larger number of census categories for a lower processing cost. Foreign governments awarded him census contracts, including Canada, Norway, and Austria in 1891 and Russia in 1897. Hollerith opened the Tabulating Machine Company in Washington, DC, in 1896, but the firm charged such high prices that Census Bureau employees figured out how to build a tabulating machine and use it for the 1910 census. Hollerith's company nearly went bankrupt and was only saved after Thomas J. Watson joined the firm in 1918 and turned it into the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) in the 1920s.

On August 30, 1890, though, Scientific American celebrated the new technology with engravings of the Hollerith Tabulator 24. This amazing depiction shows male and female workers using the card-punch tabulators, an example of a punched card, the Census Building, and a group of clerks organizing and bundling the resulting data sheets. An accompanying article is titled "The Census of the United States." The issue thus provides visual and textual primary source evidence for this early episode in the history of computing.

Cover of 30 August 1890 Scientific American showing Hollerith tabulators.

Cover of the August 30, 1890, Scientific American from the collection of Dr. Sid Kolpas.

Page 132 from 30 August 1890 Scientific American.

Page 132 from 30 August 1890 Scientific American.

"The Census of the United States," Scientific American, August 30, 1890, p. 132.


"The Census of the United States." Scientific American 63, no. 9 (August 1890): 127, 132.

"Electric Tabulation Machine." The Franklin Institute.

"Herman Hollerith." United States Census Bureau.

"Herman Hollerith." Wikipedia.

Jeremy Norman & Co. Catalogue 49: Rare Books, Manuscripts & Autographs in Science & Medicine. 2014.

"Tabulating Equipment." National Museum of American History."

Index to Mathematical Treasures

Sidney J. Kolpas (Delaware County Community College), "Mathematical Treasure: Scientific American on Hollerith's Tabulator," Convergence (November 2019)