Hollerith Machine


The Hollerith Machine, also known as the Hollerith Tabulating Machine, is an early electromechanical data processing device invented by Herman Hollerith in the late 19th century. It utilized punched cards to store and process data, allowing for efficient statistical analysis and tabulation. This invention played a significant role in the development of modern computing, ultimately leading to the founding of IBM in 1911.


The phonetic pronunciation of “Hollerith Machine” is: /ˈhɑlərɪθ məˈʃin/

Key Takeaways

  1. Hollerith Machine was an early innovation in data processing systems, developed by Herman Hollerith, which utilized punched cards to input, store, and process data efficiently.
  2. The invention of the Hollerith Machine revolutionized data management and censuses, as well as gave birth to the development of modern computers and data processing systems.
  3. Hollerith’s invention led to the creation of the Tabulating Machine Company, which later merged with other companies to form International Business Machines (IBM), a global technology giant.


The Hollerith Machine, named after its inventor Herman Hollerith, holds significant importance in the field of technology as it laid the foundation for modern-day data processing and computing.

It was an electromechanical machine developed in the late 19th century for tabulating and sorting information using punched cards.

The machine substantially increased the efficiency and accuracy of processing large amounts of data, particularly during the 1890 United States census, saving both time and resources.

This innovative device ultimately led to the formation of IBM and influenced the development of early computer technology, providing the groundwork for advancements in data storage, management, and processing that we rely on today.


The Hollerith Machine, named after its inventor Herman Hollerith, was developed in the late 19th century with the primary purpose of processing large volumes of data more efficiently than manual methods could achieve. This early data processing technology was specifically aimed at addressing challenges faced during the United States census, which was plagued by delays and inaccuracies due to the growing population.

As a result, Hollerith’s invention played a major role in revolutionizing the way large-scale data processing was conducted during that time, making it both faster and more accurate. The machine’s main application was the rapid tabulation of large-scale numerical data, particularly for census purposes, through the use of punched cards.

The Hollerith Machine was capable of reading and storing data from these punched cards in a systematic manner, using mechanical counters to tabulate information such as age, gender, and occupation. This made it possible for census takers to process vast quantities of data within a significantly shorter timeframe and with greater precision.

Eventually, Hollerith’s company, which later evolved into IBM, started applying this technology in other fields as well, such as transportation, insurance, and utility companies, where it contributed to organizing and streamlining various data management tasks.

Examples of Hollerith Machine

1890 United States Census: The first significant real-world example of the Hollerith Machine, or the Hollerith Tabulating Machine, was its use in the 1890 United States Census. This was the first time that mechanical tabulating machines were used to assist in the collection and analysis of census data, which greatly accelerated the data processing time. The Hollerith Machine analyzed millions of punch cards, helping to complete the census count within a shorter period, thus saving the government both time and money.

Railroad Companies: Following the success in the U.S. Census, the Hollerith Machine’s applications expanded to other industries. The machine gained popularity among railroad companies in the early 1900s to manage various tasks such as inventory tracking, employee records, and ticket sales. Its advanced data-processing capabilities helped streamline operations and improve the efficiency of the railroad system.

Prudential Insurance Company: Another early adopter of the Hollerith Machine was the Prudential Insurance Company in the early 20th century. The company started using tabulating machines to manage large volumes of policyholder data, including premium payments, policy values, and dividends. The Hollerith Machine contributed to reducing the time required for processing and maintaining insurance records and assisted in generating accurate statistical reports for the company.

FAQ – Hollerith Machine

What is a Hollerith Machine?

A Hollerith Machine, also known as a tabulating machine, is an early electromechanical device invented by Herman Hollerith in the late 19th century. It was designed to help process large amounts of data more efficiently by using punched cards to sort and tabulate information. The machine’s invention played a significant role in the foundation of modern data processing and paved the way for the development of computer technology.

How does a Hollerith Machine work?

A Hollerith Machine uses a system of punched cards to store data, with each card representing one piece of information. The cards contain punched holes in predetermined positions, each hole representing a specific value or characteristic. The machine reads these cards by running them through a reader, which detects the presence or absence of holes and, based on the holes’ pattern, sorts or tabulates the data accordingly. The results can then be printed or further processed.

What was the primary use of the Hollerith Machine?

The primary use of the Hollerith Machine was for the efficient tabulation and processing of large amounts of data. Its first significant application was in the United States Census of 1890, where it drastically reduced the time required to process census data from approximately eight years to just one. Ultimately, the machine found widespread use in various other industries, including railways, insurance, and government administration, for processing large amounts of data.

How did the Hollerith Machine contribute to modern computing?

The Hollerith Machine’s invention laid the groundwork for modern computing. Its use of punched cards to store and process data led to the development of early computer systems, and the punched card technology remained a common data storage method until the 1970s. Moreover, Herman Hollerith’s company, the Tabulating Machine Company, eventually merged with three other enterprises to form IBM, which became one of the world’s most prominent technology and computing companies.

Where can I see a working Hollerith Machine today?

Although it may be challenging to find a working Hollerith Machine today due as they were phased out by more advanced computing technologies, you may still find some in museums and historical exhibitions. For instance, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. displays a Hollerith Machine, among other historical computing equipment. It is also possible to find restored or replica machines at technology and computer history museums worldwide.

Related Technology Terms

  • Punched Card
  • Tabulating Machine
  • Herman Hollerith
  • Census Data Processing
  • IBM

Sources for More Information


About The Authors

The DevX Technology Glossary is reviewed by technology experts and writers from our community. Terms and definitions continue to go under updates to stay relevant and up-to-date. These experts help us maintain the almost 10,000+ technology terms on DevX. Our reviewers have a strong technical background in software development, engineering, and startup businesses. They are experts with real-world experience working in the tech industry and academia.

See our full expert review panel.

These experts include:


About Our Editorial Process

At DevX, we’re dedicated to tech entrepreneurship. Our team closely follows industry shifts, new products, AI breakthroughs, technology trends, and funding announcements. Articles undergo thorough editing to ensure accuracy and clarity, reflecting DevX’s style and supporting entrepreneurs in the tech sphere.

See our full editorial policy.

More Technology Terms

Technology Glossary

Table of Contents