American Treasures of the Library of Congress: Reason

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The Birth of Data

Pantograph punch template
Herman Hollerith (1860-1929)
Pantograph punch template
Manuscript Division

Modern data processing began with the inventions of American engineer, Herman Hollerith. In 1881 Hollerith began designing a machine to tabulate census data more efficiently than by traditional hand methods. The U.S. Census Bureau had taken eight years to complete the 1880 census, and it was feared that the 1890 census would take even longer.

Hollerith's great breakthrough was his use of electricity to read, count, and sort punched cards whose holes represented data gathered by the census-takers. His machines were used for the 1890 census and accomplished in one year what would have taken nearly ten years of hand tabulating. Hollerith's company later developed into the International Business Machines Corporation, known as IBM.

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