Today in Science History – February 29 – Herman Hollerith and Punch Cards

Herman Hollerith
Herman Hollerith (1860 – 1929)

February 29 is a rare date on the calendar. It only comes around every four years to synch up the date to the Sun’s position in the sky. Science history can be made on a leap day just like any other day.

February 29 is Herman Hollerith’s birthday. Hollerith was an American engineer who developed a machine to tabulate statistical data quickly using cards with holes punched into them, or ‘punch cards’.

The first major use of Hollerith’s tabulation machine and punch card system was the 1890 US Census. The US Constitution requires the government to count every citizen every 10 years to determine the number of representatives and tax appropriation each State receives. This process usually took nearly the entire 10 years to actually accomplish and each time, the task got bigger. This means they were open to suggestions on improving the system.

Hollerith Electrical Counting Machines
Hollerith electrical counting machines used at the 1890 Census.

For the 1890 Census run, they entered the data by punching holes in paper cards. Hollerith’s machines could be configured to count those holes as the cards passed through the machine. It had the added bonus of not making mistakes. The entire process was completed in only six years.

Punch cards had been around for about 60 years for use as a control medium in manufacturing and musical instruments. Hollerith’s machine was the first use of punch cards to manipulate information. After the success of the 1890 Census, he formed the Tabulating Machine Company. This company was later absorbed into three other companies to form a new company called Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company. This company would later be renamed International Business Machines or IBM.

Notable Science History Events for February 29

1860 – Herman Hollerith was born.

1840 – John Philip Holland was born.

John Philip Holland
John Philip Holland (1841 – 1914) in one of his submarines.

John Philip Holland was an Irish engineer who is considered to be the father of the modern submarine. His design was used for the first formally commissioned submarines of the US Navy and British Royal Navy. The Royal Navy named their first submarine the Holland-1 and the US Navy named theirs the USS Holland.

1792 – Karl Ernst von Baer was born.

Karl Ernst von Baer
Karl Ernst von Baer (1792 – 1876)

Baer was an Estonian biologist who is considered the father of embryology. He was the first to isolate the mammalian egg cell. He was the first to show that mammals develop from eggs and outlined four laws of embryology. He also made contributions to geology and entomology.

1744 – John Theophilus Desaguliers died.

John Theophilus Desaguliers
John Theophilus Desaguliers (1683 – 1744)

John Theophilus Desaguliers was a French natural philosopher who made several contributions to the early study of electricity. He is credited with coining the term ‘conductor’ for materials that easily conduct electricity and ‘insulator’ for materials that do not conduct electricity.

He was the curator of the Royal Society and Isaac Newton’s assistant for many years and helped popularize Newton’s discoveries.