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Herman Hollerith’s shop at 1054 31st Street

On the wall of the building at 1054 31st Street (MAP) in D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood is a plaque to commemorate Herman Hollerith. Hardly a household name, this gifted inventor who is regarded as the father of modern machine data processing, launched the computer age from his basement shop on this site.

Hollerith was an American statistician and inventor. In 1880 he invented the punch card tabulating machine that could rapidly tabulate statistics from millions of pieces of data. He said he got the idea of storing data on punch cards by watching a train conductor punch tickets. Hollerith built machines under contract for the United States Census Office, which used them to tabulate census data. When they were used to replace hundreds of clerks and save months of labor tabulating the 1890 census data, his machines took off in a big way.

Doing business as the Tabulating Machine Company, he developed more automatic forms of the machine over the years on this site. Many major census bureaus around the world subsequently leased his equipment and purchased his cards, as did major private insurance companies. Hollerith’s machines were used for censuses in England, Italy, Germany, Russia, Austria, Canada, France, Norway, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines, and again in the 1900 U.S. census.

The machines were also used in the private retail sector, including a Chicago merchant named Marshall Field, who was about to turn a small dry goods firm into the largest department store in the world. In 1911, Hollerith’s Tabulating Machine Company merged with three other corporations to form the Computing Tabulating Recording Company. The new company, headed by Thomas J. Watson, was later renamed the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM).

Hollerith died in 1929, and is buried in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery (MAP), a historic 22-acre cemetery and botanical garden located just a few blocks from his shop.

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