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Case Files: Herman Hollerith

Two incidents contributed to Hollerith's solution: conversations with Census Bureau colleague, Dr. John Shaw Billings, about count mechanization and the Jacquard loom card system, and observations of a railroad conductor punching riders' tickets for identification purposes.


Chapter 8. Billings, Hollerith, and the Census

The Computer from Pascal to von Neumann, 1993, pp. 65-71 (7 pages)

While the returns of the Tenth (1880) Census were being tabu-
lated at Washington, Billings was walking with a companion
through the office in which h ~ ~ n d r e d sof clerks were engaged in
laboriously transferring items of information from the schedules
to the 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 lnechanical way of doing
this job, something on the principle of the Jacquard loom, whereby
lloles in a card regulate the pattern to be woven." The seed fell
on good ground. His companion was a talented young engineer in
the office who first convinced himself that the idea was practicable
and then that Billings had no desire to claim or use it.3

One Sunday evening at Dr. Billings' tea table, he said to me
there ought to be a machine for doing the purely mechanical
work of tabulating population and similar statistics. We talked
the matter over and I remember. . . h e thought of using cards
with the description of the individual shown by notches punched
in the edge of the card. . . . After studying the problem I went
back to Dr. Billings and said that I thought I could work out a
solution for the problem and asked him if he would go in with
me. The Doctor said h e was not interested any further than to
see some solution of the problem worked
In reading over various speeches and papers by Billings on the
subject it seems to the author clear that Hollerith was the real
implementor of Billings' basic idea. Dr. Raymond Pearl, who was
for many years one of the world leaders in biology and biostatistics
and who was professor of biology and public hygiene at Johns
Hopkins, analyzed the situation in 1938 and concluded that "In
all essentials the case seems clear. Billings was the originator, the
discoverer, who contributed that which lies at the core of every
scientific discovery, namely, an original idea that proved in the trial
to be sound and good; Hollerith built a machine that implemented
the idea in practical performance, the accomplishment here, as
always of the successful inventor."
It is difficult to say more about the allocation of credit than Pearl
did. We will have occasion to see other examples of the difficulties
of allocating credit among men all of whom are deeply immersed
in a common project. Let us then agree with Pearl that Billings had
the basic idea and that Hollerith implemented it.
More importantly let us consider what the system was and what
use was made of it. Hollerith, proceeding on Billings' suggestions,
used a system of holes in a punch card to represent various charac-
teristics such as male or female, black or white, native or foreign-
born, age, etc. H e first designed his system using a continuous
roll of paper instead of individual cards. The card or roll of paper
then ran under a set of contact brushes which completed an elec-
trical circuit if and only if a hole was present. The completed
circuits activated counters which advanced one position for each
'Truesdell, p. 31. Truesdell, p. 33.


Herman hollerith: data processing pioneer

eing 19 years of age and a bachelor when he arrived in Washington to begin his new job, Hollerith became active in Georgetown social circles. He met Dr. John Shaw Billings at the Billings home one Sunday evening in 1880 through a supper invitation from Billings’ daughter. Although not trained as such, Billings was an cstablishcd expert in analyzing vital statistics, and the Census Bureau had appointed him Director of Vital Statistics for the 1880 census.2 That first encounter was the occlision for the famous but, ambiguously interpreted Billings-to-Hollerith transfer of the idea for a punched card machine to tabulate U. S. Census data. Interpreta- tions of Billings’ influence vary from “suggested the need for” to “suggested using cards with the description of the individual shown by notches in the edge of the card and a device something like a type distributing ma- chine.”

The material published in this sketch is extracted and edited from John Blodgett’s thesis presented in partial fulfillment of the Degree of Master of Science in Information Science at Drexel Insti-tute of Technology School of Lihrary Science, Phila., Pa., June, 1968. The original 234 pp. typescript is available on loan from the Drexel Library. Blodgett’s work began as a term paper and grew into a thesis because he gained access to hitherto withheld Hollerith family resourccs and was diligent enough to tap publicly available resources not previously consulted--to learn more of Hollerith’s personal story and to elucidate the controversial record of John Shaw Billing’s part in the development of the first punched card sorter.


The development of punch card tabulation in the Bureau of the Census (1965)

- 4 matching terms
...THE ORIGINATORS OF THE SYSTEM 31 7 a way of doing this job, something on the principle of the Jacquard; loom,? whereby holes in a card regulate the pattern to be woven.” The seed fell on good ground. His companion was a talented young engineer in the office who first convinced himself that the idea was practicable and then that Billings had no desire to claim or use it....

...I have since received a letter from the daughter of Dr. Billings, Mrs. K. B. Wilson, in which she writes “I do not remember hearing of Father's remarks to Herman Hollerith about these machines (the Jacquard; loom] being applied to census tabula- tions, but I do remember the first little wooden model which Herman Hollerith brought to our library many evenings while they were puzzling their brains over its adaptation.”...

...That the data collected by the census for each living person, or, in systems of death registration, for each decedent, might be recorded on a single card or slip by punching small holes in different parts of it, and that these cards might then be assorted and counted by mechanical means according to any selected groupings of these perforations, was first suggested by Dr. Billings in 1880. (Italics added.) with me. ? No reference is made in any of the available early (pre-1890) records to the Jacquard; loom as a prece- dent for the use of punched cards in the operation of machinery; but in a lecture given at the University of Pennsylvania in 1896, as recorded in a paper on file in the New York Public Library, Dr. Billings said "My original idea was to use a punched slip of paper as a guide to rods and labors (levers?), which would operate on the principle of the Jacquard; loom, but Mr. Hollerith has made use of the power of electricity." This indicates that Dr. Billings not only had in mind the general problem of machine tabulation (what it should do), but had given some thought to the mechanics of a possible solution. • Reported to the writer by James L....


DR. BILLINGS SELECTED: Named for Superintendent of the New-York Public Library. NOW WITH PENNSYLVANIA UNIVERSITY Regarded as an Excellent Selection for the Position -- His Career in the Army and Fame as a Bibliographer.


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