Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A Real Steampunk Computer

Now this is just lovely!
A Flickr page of shots from a visit to the Computer History Museum features this census machine used for the 1890 U.S. census. Steampunk tinkerers, start your dremels!

From the Flickr page:

Herman Hollerith conceived of this machine when traveling on a train with a friend. He noticed that the conductor punched his ticket differently from his friend's, even though they were going to the same place. Hollerith asked the conductor why, and the conductor responded that the spaces on the ticket corresponded to hair color, eye color, height, and other characteristics of the passenger, so that people could not pass on their tickets. Hollerith thought the same thing would work for counting the census.

It turns out Mr. Hollerith was something of a character, I daresay, somewhat of a steampunk himself. Some folks refer to him as the forgotten father of information processing. He certainly has a claim to the title. (I'm including this picture because... Well, just look at that magnificient mustache!) Wikipedia has this to say about Herman Hollerith :

Herman Hollerith developed a mechanism for reading the presence or absence of holes in the cards using spring-mounted needles that passed through the holes to make electrical connections to trigger a counter to record one more of each value. The key idea (due to Billings), however, was that all personal data could be coded numerically. Hollerith saw that if the numbers could then be punched in specified columns on the cards, the cards could be sorted mechanically, and therefore the appropriate columns totaled. ....
He built machines under contract for the US Census Bureau, which used them to tabulate the 1890 census in 2.5 years. The 1880 census had taken seven years. He started his own business in 1896 when he founded the Tabulating Machine Company. Most of the major census bureaus around the world leased his equipment and purchased his cards, as did major insurance companies. To make his system work he invented the first automatic card-feed mechanism, the first Key punch (i.e. a punch that was operated from a keyboard) allowing a skilled operator to punch 200–300 cards per hour and a tabulator. The 1890 Tabulator was hardwired to operate only on 1890 Census cards. A wiring panel in his 1906 Type I Tabulator allowing it to do different jobs without having to be rebuilt (the first step towards programming).These inventions were the foundation of the modern information processing industry. ...
In 1911, his firm merged with two others to form the Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation (CTR). Under the presidency of Thomas J. Watson, it was renamed IBM in 1924.

That's right kiddies, IBM, which says this about Hollerith:

Can a mining engineer who got poor grades in bookeeping find success in the data procesing industry? Herman Hollerith did--he invented the industry. ...

He liked good cigars, fine wine, Guernsey cows, and money. And he ended up with a lot of each.
He disliked property taxes, and hard-driving salesmen.
He despised spelling. Enough to jump out a grade-school window to escape it. With that, he also jumped out of the New York City school system. A private tutor, though, helped him learn enough to permit his entrance into Columbia College when he was just sixteen.
He graduated three years later as a mining engineer, with low marks only in bookkeeping and machines. He ignored this setback and went on to invent the first punched card electrical tabulating machines

Seems to me some interesting steampunk fiction could be inspired by imagining Hollerith and Tesla chatting over cigars in a drawing room...

Steampunk scribes, start your mechanized-quills!

via Neatorama

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