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STARS:Early Punched Card Equipment, 1880 - 1951

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Author: Emerson Pugh


Punched card tabulating equipment, invented and developed by Herman Hollerith to process data from the United States Census of 1890, was the first mechanized means for compiling and analyzing statistical information. Through continual improvements, first by Hollerith and then by many others, punched card equipment created and expanded the worldwide information processing industry and continued to play a significant role in that industry for more than two decades after the first commercial electronic computers were installed in the early 1950s.


1880 Hollerith works for U.S. Census and seeks ways to mechanize the census process
1884 Hollerith files first punched card processing patent
1886 First practical test of Hollerith’s equipment at Baltimore Dept. of Health
1890 Tabulation of the U.S. Census of 1890 is begun using Hollerith’s equipment
1896 Hollerith signs contract to supply equipment for NY Central Railroad
1904 Tabulator Limited established to market Hollerith products in Britain
1910 Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft is established for German market
1910 Punched card equipment developed by Census Bureau processes U.S. Census
1911 First number-printing tabulator is built by the U.S. Census Bureau
1911 John Powers leaves Census Bureau to establish punched card equipment company
1911 Hollerith’s company is merged with two other companies to form CTR
1914 Thomas J. Watson, Sr., is hired to manage CTR
1924 CTR is renamed IBM
1927 Remington Rand, Inc., acquires the Powers Accounting Machine Company
1928 The “IBM Card” is introduced with larger storage capacity and rectangular holes
1931 Compagnie des machines Bull begins competitive punched card business
1932 Bull produces first alphanumeric tabulator
1936 IBM punched card equipment is adopted for new U.S. Social Security System
1946 Vacuum-tube electronics are first used in a punched card product
1951 Electronic computers begin competing with punched card equipment


Punched Card Equipment for Information Processing

Emerson W. Pugh and Lars Heide

Soon after graduating in 1879, at age nineteen from the Columbia School of Mines, Herman Hollerith was hired to work for the U.S. Census of 1880. He and several other technically trained persons had been hired to help the U.S. Census Bureau respond to the desire of the U.S. Congress to acquire information on the country’s economy to help in making policy decisions. This task had been added to the relatively simple mandate of the U.S. Constitution that Congress conduct an enumeration of the population every ten years in order to help ensure fair representation and taxation among the states of the United States.



References of Historical Significance

References for Further Reading

About the Author(s)

Emerson W. Pugh is the author or coauthor of four books on the history of IBM and the computer industry. One of these, Building IBM, Shaping an Industry and Its Technology (The MIT Press, 1995) provides a primary basis for this article. Dr. Pugh has a PhD in physics and worked for IBM for 36 years in many capacities, including research scientist, product development manager, and corporate executive. He served as president of the IEEE in 1989, chair of the IEEE History Committee in 1996 through 1998, and president of the IEEE Foundation in 2000 through 2004.

Lars Heide is the author of three books and a large number of international articles on history of technology, including Punched-Card Systems and the Early Information Explosion, 1880-1945, (Johns Hopkins, 2009). Dr. Heide has a PhD in History of Technology and a Dr.merc. in Business History. He has been an associate professor at Copenhagen Business School since 2000. Before joining the business school he held managerial and research positions at universities and a museum. Currently he is member of the editorial board of the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing and a member of the advisory board of an international research network.