In the last 10 years Washington's dynamic high-tech industry has grown to more than 3,000 information technology companies, its work force of roughly 300,000 employees rivaling that of the the federal government. Though this profitable industry is transforming the region, the D.C. area is considered a new and often unknown player on the high-tech scene. So new in fact, that Washington's high-tech region lacks the slick nickname of more established technology centers, such as California's Silicon Valley or New York's Silicon Alley.
But Washington's high-tech business is older than some might think. Its success has roots in 19th-century Georgetown at 1054 31st St. NW in an old brick building that sits next to Colonial houses and the well-worn C&O canal towpath.
Here, an obscure bureaucrat named Herman Hollerith "perfected his pioneering punch card tabulating machines, forerunners of today's computer systems," according to a small plaque on the side of the building.
The Census Bureau hired Hollerith as a statistician in 1879 to help automate its census. Previously, the census had been calculated manually, but faced a logistical crisis during the 1880s as the U.S. population increased from 50 million people to 63 million. Hollerith developed and patented his "Hollerith Cards" and a machine to tabulate them for the 1890 census. These were essentially the same thing as the "computer punch cards" that proliferated until computer advances eliminated the need in the mid-1970s. Hollerith claimed to have gotten the idea from watching a train conductor punch tickets: Information was encoded on the cards by the location of the holes punched in them, then "read" when a wire poked through the hole and completed an electric circuit that in turn activated a mechanical counter.
These punch cards were the first major application of data processing, and revolutionized the information processing industry. Overall, the Census Bureau completed its 1890 census in one-third of the time taken for the previous manual census, and with improved accuracy.
Following the success of the 1890 census, Hollerith left the government to form his own start-up, capitalizing on government contacts and contracts. He established the Tabulating Machine Co. in the Georgetown plant in 1892 and continued to develop increasingly complex systems for data processing. One machine he developed was the first to use a keyboard. There are a few twists to this tale of American ingenuity. Hollerith, owing to his monopoly on the card-sorting technology, charged the Census Bureau so much to tabulate the 1900 census that the agency went feverishly to work to come up with an alternative. When the bureau succeeded, it was so far superior to Hollerith's invention that it came to dominate the market.
But Hollerith's company hung on, later merging with two others. The merged company did all right for itself. You may have heard of it: IBM.
--Platt Biggar, Washington
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