The Birth of Big Data

Hollerith tabulating machine and sorter

The Economist on IBM’s celebration of its 100th birthday tomorrow: “Official history notwithstanding, the company’s true age is 125. In 1886 Herman Hollerith, a statistician, started a business to rent out the tabulating machines he had originally invented for America’s census. Taking a page from train conductors, who then punched holes in tickets to denote passengers’ observable traits (eg, that they were tall, or female) to prevent fraud, he developed a punch card that held a person’s data and an electric contraption to read it. The technology became the core of IBM’s business when it was incorporated as Computing Tabulating Recording Company (CTR) in 1911 after Hollerith’s firm merged with three others.”

James Cortada in Before the Computer quotes Walter Wilcox of the U.S. Bureau of the Census: “While the returns of the Tenth (1880) Census were being tabulated at Washington, John Shaw Billings [Director of the Division of Vital Statistics] was walking with a companion through the office in which hundreds of clerks were engaged in laboriously transferring data from schedules to record sheets by the slow and heartbreaking method of hand tallying. As they were watching the clerks he said to his companion, ‘there ought to be some mechanical way of doing this job, something on the principle of the Jacquard loom.'” Says Cortada: “It was a singular moment in the history of data processing, one historians could reasonably point to and say that things had changed because of it. It stirred Hollerith’s imagination and ultimately his achievements.”

And: “The U.S. Census of 1890… was a milestone in the history of modern data processing…. No other occurrence so clearly symbolized the start of the age of mechanized data handling…. Before the end of that year, [Hollerith’s] machines had tabulated all 62,622,250 souls in the United States. Use of his machines saved the bureau $5 million over manual methods while cutting sharply the time to do the job. Additional analysis of other variables with his machines meant that the Census of 1890 could be completed within two years, as opposed to nearly ten years taken for fewer data variables and a smaller population in the previous census.”

About GilPress

I launched the Big Data conversation; writing, research, marketing services; &
This entry was posted in Big Data, Censuses, Computer history. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s