Saturday, February 28, 2009

Herman Hollerith

FORTRAN was the first computer programming language I learned.  As a grade 10 high school student, at the time, I was introduced how the programming language was used to process numeric calculations and character strings. The Hello World application would be something like this...
    WRITE (6,500)
From this example we learned about Herman Hollerith and what he had achieved.  Not since learning FORTRAN have I heard much about Hollerith.  The characters in the Format statement above mean... 11 Hollerith characters follow... they being HELLO WORLD.

In 2000 I dragged my family to Bletchely Park (near Milton Keynes, England).  They were not impressed.  I was overly impressed with the war time code breaking that had secretly taken place there--I felt like a kid again enjoying the stories and sites.  On the grounds was a collection of computers and unit record equipment.  Around the room where old mini and micro computers all in working order.  However, in the middle of room hidden behind other relics was a rusted out peice of equipment that caught me eye.  My wife and kids immediately looked for the exit.

The machine was a tabulating device designed by Hollerith.  I pushed my way through the first generation of desktop digital computers to get a better look at the tabulating device.  It was good to see Hollerith's mark on computer history again.

In 1896 Herman Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company, a company he was able to start after working with the US Census Office to solve their overwhelming need to process census data.  Herman designed a punch card that was the same size as the US currency in order to take advantage of Treasury Department money boxes.  He designed the card with 24 columns each with 12 punch positions--the foundation for the definition of a digital representation of our character set.

In 1911 Hollerith's company merged with three other firms to become the Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation. In 1924 it was renamed International Business Machines (IBM).

Herman Hollerith shares a unique trait with many others. He was born on February 29, 1860, only being able to truly celebrate his birthday every four years.

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