Other than the birth of the newspaper whose influence far exceeds its size, Georgetown has an important place in the history of technology as well. San Francisco, Silicon Valley and the Dulles Tech Corridor are all places that are strongly associated with technology, but Georgetown remains a place where innovators work towards progress.
The Birthplace of IBM
Washingtonians may be surprised to know that the first computers were invented right here in Georgetown. Visitors to 1054 31st Street, right next to the C&O Canal, will find a plaque marking the building as where Herman Hollerith’s Tabulating Machine Company was located at the turn of the 20th century. Hollerith’s company would later merge with other companies to be renamed International Business Machines, also known as IBM.
Hollerith originally came to Georgetown in 1879. In 1886, the U.S. Census Office decided to hold a contest to see who could come up with a more efficient system of counting the census. Hollerith receieved inspiration from 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. Better yet, he saved the government $5,000,000, a huge amount of money in 1889 dollars.
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 in 1915 he built a grand house in Georgetown at 1617 29th Street, where the house stands to this day.
While his machine was a big success, other innovators came up with similar inventions. Hollerith sold his company in 1911, amd it was merged with two others to be the Computing Tabulating Recording Company. Later. the company again and changed its name to International Business Machines.
Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory
Alexander Graham Bell is best known as the inventor of the telephone.
In 1880, Bell won the Volta Prize, a prize of 50,000 francs for scientific achievement given by the French government. Bell used the money to establish the Volta laboratory in the carriage house of his stepfather’s house at 1527 35th Street. In 1887, Bell founded the Volta Bureau at 1537 35th Street “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the deaf.” Both Bell’s mother and wife were deaf, and much of his father’s work was in elocution. The current building was built in 1893 and is a National Historic Landmark.
The Future of Tech in Georgetown
Both Hollerith and Bell were drawn to Washington because of the special nature of it being the nation’s capital. Hollerith began his business thanks to the Census Bureau, and Bell was frequently involed in patent disputes at the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
These days, most techies are familiar with the Dulles Tech Corridor, the region along Virginia State Route 267 where many technology firms are located. Washington remains a place where innovators are working together to get new companies off the ground.
As the coming “mobile wave” breaks, location may cease to be an issue as people in different parts of the area, country or world collaborate on projects.