Tabulating Equipment

A collection of tabulating machines in the collections of mathematics, Division of Medicine and Science, National Museum of American History

In the late 19th century, population growth, expansion of business and government, and developments in statistics encouraged compilation of extensive information. Particularly in the United States, where skilled clerks were in short supply, executives encouraged the development and use of office equipment such as typewriters, adding machines, and tabulating equipment - machinery for preparing and compiling data entered on punched cards.

Engineer Herman Hollerith of Washington, D.C. designed the first tabulating systems to help reduce data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. The machines were first used on a large scale in the 1890 census of population. Modified Hollerith machines found customers in business as well as in government. Hollerith’s firm merged with two others and eventually took the name International Business Machines.

Mindful of the cost of renting Hollerith tabulating equipment, the Bureau of the Census hired Russian émigré James Powers to design alternate machines for counting and sorting data from punched cards. Powers machines represented numbers entirely by moving parts, not by changes in electrical current as in Hollerith’s machines. Powers left the Census Bureau after a few years to establish the Powers Accounting Machine Company. In the 1920s, this firm merged with several other makers of business equipment to form Remington Rand, an ancestor of the present Unisys Corporation. IBM and Remington Rand soon were fierce rivals, competing in the speed and convenience of their machines, and the readiness with which numerical results and alphabetic information were printed. Both companies licensed patents to European vendors, some of which developed their own models.

In the 1950s both companies introduced tabulating equipment that operated electronically. They also were early manufacturers of electronic computers. For some years, punched cards were the primary way of entering data onto computers.