Herman Hollerith

Interview by Thomas Smith, approximate date: early in 1929. Substance.

Looking back on your life, what acheivement are you most proud of, and why?
I am most proud of the usefulness of my inventions. Most inventors work for the thrill of a job done well, rather than for money. I am no exception. I feel my best when I get a letter of complement from some long-time customer who makes extensive use of my machines.
You won the contract for the 1890 census. How did you do that?
My machines, using punch cards, were faster than the others. The other systems were that of Mr. Hunt, which was a system of sorting cards by hand after transcribing information onto them in different-colored inks, and that of Mr. Pidgin, which was similar but used different colors of paper. My system is far superior to their systems. I recorded the test information onto my punch cards in a mere 72 hours, 27 minutes. Pidgin's method took 110 hours, 56 minutes, and Mr. Hunt's method took 144 hours and 25 minutes. In data processing, my machine is even more clearly superior. It took my machine a mere 5 hours, 28 minutes to go through all of the data, while Pidgin's method took 44 hours, 41 minutes and Hunt's took 55 hours, 22 minutes. The awarding of the contract to me was a natural result of these tests.
How did you come up with the idea for a tabulating machine?
While I was courting a young lady in my youth, her father was working in the Census Bureau. He complained that there should be an automated way to tabulate statistics. I seized upon this idea and have taken it to its fullest potential.
Did the machines break? How?
During the Census, very seldom have these machines ceased to function. When they did, it was usually because someone had extracted some of the mercury used in the machine and sniffed it, gaining some unneeded rest.
What does your family think of your business?
My family is incredibly supportive of my business. When I must be away on long trips, we correspond by mail, and they always are greatly excited when I get home. The family I was born into, though, was completely disdainful of my ideas about the machines, so I have disassociated myself from them. I have not spoken to an immediate relative in several years.
Have you worked in any other countries? What was it like?
I have worked in many countries. It was very pleasurable in all of them except Austria. Austria declined my request for a patent, and then took the information contained in the request and put it to work building their own machines. This remained a problem for quite a while, as their (inferior) machines were much cheaper than mine, and sold throughout Europe.
How do you feel about your inventions?
My inventions are my greatest achievements. Nevertheless, they are not as important to me as my family. My strong sons, lovely daughters, and beautiful wife are the ones who keep me going. I owe many, many thanks to them. My inventions may change the world, but to me they will be worth nothing but pride and money. These machines cannot love.
What advancements need to be made in the field of tabulation?
A more reliable way of handling punch cards would be useful. Faster sorters, card readers, and other things would also improve the machines. I have made many advances, but there is always room for improvement.
Where do you see the field going?
The idea I'm currently thinking about is the application of the machines to problems of arithmetic and logic. The current machines must be rewired to change their logic, but it should be possible to create machines which could read both their data and their logic from cards, as proposed by Babbage. In the field of arithmetic, the problem is that, so far, it is only possible to do addition and subtraction on my machines. Multiplication and division would add inestimable value to them.
Thank you for your time, Mr. Hollerith.
You are very welcome.

(Austrian 1-51; Eames 12-27)


The point of this genre is to give insight into Hollerith's character. The things which I wished to show included why he invented things, what kept him going when things were rough, and who was important to him. I believe that this goal is achieved through questions which regard Hollerith's perception more than definite reality.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.