Herman Hollerith

Letter by Thomas Smith

February 23, 1907

Dear Father,

Mr. Hollerith has accepted my job application! Today was my first day at work. This experience was truly wonderful. Mr. Hollerith has a fierce temper, but it is not difficult to avoid it.

Today he started my training. This consists of disassembling one of his earlier machines and then reassembling it. The details of his machine are quite interesting. A punch card sits on a little wooden plate with holes in it, which lead down to little cups of mercury. A press with retractable pins is pressed on the card, so that where there is a hole, the pin goes through to the mercury and a circuit is completed. This runs electricity through an electromagnet, causing a counter to increment. With some minor mechanical surgery, it is possible to make a counter only change if there is a certain combination of holes. This makes quite complex computations possible. In my opinion, Hollerith is a genius for inventing this machine.

Hollerith's business dealings are quite amazingly honorable. He employs no salesmen, instead preferring to request letters of recommendation from previous customers to potential new ones. One of his biggest problems is that he expects other businessmen to act in a similarly honest way. This does not happen very often, although his closer business partners tend to adopt this style when dealing with him. With most people, it is easier to get forgiveness than permission, for some questionable activity. This is not the case with Hollerith--if you ask him about it, he's likely not to object to your missing a few days of work, for instance, but if you don't tell him about it and just skip them, he'll get quite angry.

The company is behind on orders of machines, so everyone is busy. This company seems to be growing very quickly. We (TMC, the Tabulating Machine Company) bought a large share of Taft-Peirce, the company which supplies our parts, so we are (in theory) self-sufficient. We really need to hire more people, though.

I will be working on assembling machines, as a member of a small team. My team gets parts, and puts them together into one machine. There are other teams, so that machines can be made in parallel, as fast as the parts division can turn out parts (which is not very fast).

As well as assembly, I will be on call for technical support. The common knowledge is that nothing ever goes wrong with the machine. It's always some foolish error by the user, such as sniffing the mercury or "borrowing" some part from the machine. The problem with the first case, where someone extracts mercury from one of the cups, is that it is hard to detect that anything is wrong, if the extractor chooses his or her cup well. There are simply no holes counted by that cup. When I took apart and reassembled a machine for my training, it was difficult not to spill any of the mercury. When the machines are installed, I am sure it is quite a job. Perhaps the mercury is not stored in the cups, being taken along in a separate container instead. I suppose I shall find out someday soon.

I am very excited about this job! The pay is quite good, and the work is interesting. I miss you, and mother and my sister as well.


J. Random Employee

(Austrian 1-260)


The goal of this letter is to show what Hollerith's business life and the lives of his employees were like.

Herman Hollerith

Letter to Mr. North, by Thomas Smith

Dear Mr. North:

I have become aware that you are going into business. You have hired several of my former employees, with the intention of using their extensive knowledge of my machines to your advantage. This is despicable, as well as illegal. I urge you to stop now.

The employees of mine whom you have hired are very knowledgeable about my machines; however, they have signed agreements of non-disclosure that prevent them from revealing the design of the machines before the patents expire--not for another 4 years. If they violate these agreements at your request, both they and you could face legal action.

Specifically, I have heard that you are planning to market a derivative of my machine, which you developed while working at the Census Bureau. This machine violates my patents.

I will make you an offer: I will hire you and all of your employees. I will do this if you will not use the expertise that you gain in my company to give me competition. How does this sound?

For all of my life, I have been fair in my business dealings. Never have I advertised except by simple word of mouth, and yet business is booming. For another company to enter the field, violate my patents, and begin a campaign of advertising would be unforgivable. My customers would rather live without advertising in their lives. If you ignore my request to cease and decist, I hope you will copy something from me besides my machine--my method of doing business.

During the Census, your motivations were admirable--the reduction of cost and such. Now, however, you seem to be purely interested in making money without doing any work.

Every dollar that you make from my machine rightfully belongs to me and to my employees. Again, I extend my generous offer to hire you and your employees. You will all be well-paid, and I will drop the lawsuit which I now have against you. Please consider my offer carefully.

Sincerely yours,
Herman Hollerith

(Austrian 1-75)


This piece is an attempt to show what happened when someone did not return Hollerith's honorable way of doing business. These two letters are substance when put together.

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