The Birth of the Computer, in Georgetown

Washingtonians may be surprised to know that the first computers were invented right here in Georgetown, and if you go to 1054 31st Street (now Canal Square), you will find a plaque marking the place where Herman Hollerith’s Tabulating Machine Company was located at the turn of the last century.

It all started when the federal government ran into problems taking the national census in 1880. The process took too long and was full of mistakes. So in 1886, the U.S. Census Office decided to hold a contest to see who could come up with a better system.

Herman Hollerith would have seemed an unlikely winner of such a contest when he was in grade school in Buffalo, NY. He had such a hard time in school that he used to hide from his teacher. His German immigrant parents took him out of school and got him a tutor, and this helped him realize his amazing potential. He entered college at the age of 15 and got a degree in mining engineering at the age of 19. Eventually, he got a doctorate from Columbia University, where he wrote his thesis about a very special invention of his, an electric tabulating machine. He got the idea from his girlfriend’s father, who told him about the French jacquard weaving machines which were set up with punch cards to automatically weave intricate repetitive patterns. Hollerith created his own punch card system of tabulation, and got a patent for the invention in 1889. When he entered the census office contest, his sample census took a fraction of the time of his nearest competitor. So instead of seven and a half years to do the U.S. census, Hollerith finished the initial count in six weeks, with the final tabulations completed in two and a half years. Better yet, he saved the government $5,000,000, which was a huge sum at that time.

In 1896, Hollerith started the Tabulating Machine Company. The first factory employed mostly women, who worked on their individual tabulators in a large open room. These women were called “computers,” because that was their job description. Hollerith’s business thrived, and his machines were sold to countries around the world for census taking. His fortunes grew, too, and he built a grand mansion in Georgetown at 1617 29th Street, overlooking the Potomac River. By the way, the home, which stayed in the family for 80 years, was on the market recently for $22,000,000.

While his magical machine was a big success, other innovators came up with similar inventions. He merged his company to diversify and broaden its hold on a diminishing market. When Herman retired in 1921, his successor, who happened to be a marketing ace, merged the company again and changed its name to International Business Machines. Yes, that’s IBM, otherwise known as Big Blue. And so, our own Herman Hollerith, the child who couldn’t spell in elementary school, went on to become the father of the modern computer, an invention that has made a revolutionary impact on the way we live and work.

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