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When creating tables was a matter of years: from Hollerith’s tabs to the birth of IBM

The first programmable computer arrived at the beginning of the 20th century, a few decades before the arrival of the first computer in Spain at the hands of IBM. But precisely the foundations of this company and of computing began even earlier, in the 19th century, and it was largely to blame for this. the tabulators.

Hearing about “tabulating” from many leads us to think about our keyboard; who most and who least has required that key on the “caps lock”, which helps us to add some more spacing at once or perhaps jump from section to section in a window. Tabulating is, in essence, putting in the form of a table, something that when you did not have screens or interfaces like the current ones, but a typewriter, was a real headache and that Herman Hollerith wanted to solve, promoting a tremendous change in the industry without knowing it.

“Census all this and do it quickly, at least in ten years”

Perhaps something like this sounded when, after investing seven years in the 1880 census, it was necessary to do the 1890 in the United States. Some documents that are still preserved and in which you can see the work in tables that it meant, along with all the data analysis and manual calculation that involved.

With Word’s “Create Table” tool still more than a century into existence, destiny (and its specialization in various types of engineering, at MIT among other places) made Hollerith one day realized how tedious the census process. The United States had been experiencing a considerable increase in population for several decades for various reasons (such as increased immigration) and taking a census of the population, as we have said, was beginning to be somewhat pharaonic.

Hollerith saw, in full industrial effervescence, that a typewriter should be able to help streamline the process, something beyond existing typewriters. And he soon found what would be the key: a large part of the census questions could be answered in a binary way, or yes or no.

They tell IBM (later we will understand why they tell it) that the American, like Charles Babbage for the construction of his analytical engine, was inspired by the looms of Joseph Marie Jacquard (18th-19th century) for his invention. That is, create something that could take advantage of the brand new electricity (discovered in 1752 by Benjamin Franklin) and a punch card system, something about which you may have read about here already (and it is no coincidence).

Then he thought about creating the punch cards that would suit his role, devising a card with 80 columns with 2 positions, so that the questions would be answered. That is to say, depending on where the hole had, to the question of “Gender” it would indicate “masculine” or “feminine”.

This would be the food of the tabulator that he would end up inventing. A machine composed of a reader of these cards, a sorter / sorter (which allowed selecting cards according to certain criteria), a counter and a tabulator that would end up speeding up the process much, even if the operators had to manually enter the cards, going from completing a census in seven years to do it in two years.

The key to its operation were mercury contacts. Hollerith devised a system whereby the presence of a hole (if this can be expressed that way) involved contact between two mercury heads, so that there was an electric current. This made the tabulator register the information, as the counter was driven.

An international success and an important step for the future of computing

According to IBM, the government of the United States saved a good amount with the invention, specifically 5 million dollars. And that’s how well it went for Hollerith, whose tabulators spread around the world and he ended up founding his own company: the Tabulating Machine Company, in 1896, as detailed in the Smithsonian magazine.

In parallel, computing was creating an important foundation and a few years later the Computing Scale Company knocked on his door, which did not come alone. Both it and the International Time Recording Company and Bundy Manufacturing Company they merged with Hollerith’s company to create Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation (CTR).

Business continued to do well and tabulators ended up in many more places than census bureaus, such as train companies, the pharmaceutical industry, or metallurgy. And with that international growth, the name was better adapted to its scope, ending in its baptism as International Business Machines, IBM, and 1924.

From there the longevity of the company, whose 100 years deserved a series of specials here (taking as date the creation of CTR, its true gestation even though it received the name thirteen years later). Thus, although Hollerith would not get to see it, eventually millions of people would come to create tables very easily on devices that his ingenuity would somehow anticipate.

Imagen | National Museum of American History