Herman Hollerith did undergraduate work at the School of Mines of Columbia University in New York. In 1879 he began work the U.S. Census Office, and soon was appointed a special agent charged with collecting statistics on the power and machinery used in manufactures. Hollerith quickly became intrigued by the problem of compiling Census statistics. By 1887 he had devised a tabulating system that included cards, a special punch for making holes in them at select locations to represent Census data, a tabulator that counted data on the cards, and a sorter that eased the task of sorting the cards for reuse. The system was tested in computing mortality statistics for the city of Baltimore. This proved sufficiently successful that Hollerith machines were selected to compile the data accumulated in the 1890 U.S. Census of population.
Hollerith’s system found use not only in the United States but in Britain, France, and Russia. By 1907 he had modified it to accommodate demands of business accounting. The new tabulating systems incorporated an adding machine; used punched cards with columns; had an improved card reader and a key-driven card punch; and offered a mechanical sorter. In 1911 Hollerith’s Tabulating Machine Company merged with two other firms to form the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, soon renamed IBM. Related companies emerged in France, Germany, and Great Britain. From 1914 Thomas J. Watson headed the firm, cultivating ties to American science, government, and business. IBM constructed one of the first relay computers, used at Harvard University during World War II. It went on to dominate the business of making and selling mainframe electronic computers.