One of the first, or most prominent people, to work on a Big Data problem was Herman Hollerith. In the 1880s the US Census Bureau was struggling to process census data in a timely fashion. It took eight years to process the 1880 census meaning data only became available just before the next census began.
In 1888 Hollerith’s Electromechanical Tabulating Machine won a competition to see who could count and process census data the fastest. His machine, which used punch cards, blew his competitors out of the water. In some of the tests it was nearly 10 times more efficient. As a result, Hollerith won the contract to help process the 1890 Census and patented his invention in 1889.
The 1890 Census was a great success it collected and processed far more data and delivered the results 18 months earlier than the 1880 Census. Electromechanical Tabulating Machines would be used to process census data until the 1950s when computers took over. They would also be used in many other industries.
Hollerith can be regarded as the father of the Data and Analytics Industry and the man who transformed early computers from novelty items into a business success. He was though, like many high achievers, a bit of an oddball and an outlier.
There are four facts, compiled from Hollerith’s life, that highlight both his interesting character and the impact he had on the computer and data industries.
- Hollerith did not do well at school, he hated spelling so much he jumped out of a classroom window to avoid it. He had to be privately tutored from that point on and only just scraped into college.
- In 1911 Hollerith helped form the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company. Under the presidency of Thomas J Watson, a man Hollerith did not get on with, the company would be renamed IBM in 1924.
- In 1966 FORTRAN 66 was released and it introduced the Hollerith Constant in honour of Herman Hollerith. The constant could be used to manipulate characters as FORTRAN contained no Character data type.
- In 1921 Hollerith retired to his farm in the Chesapeake Bay to raise Guernsey cattle. Despite his incredible engineering accomplishments he stated “I have never been so intensely interested in anything as I have in Guernseys.”
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