When you think of the birth of the information technology industry, you usually think of Seattle or Silicon Valley. But you should really think of the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC because this is where the earliest forms of computing start.
In a building alongside the old C&O Canal is where Herman Hollerith makes a machine that starts the information processing revolution.
Hollerith is the son of German immigrants. He gets a degree from the Columbia School of Mines and then goes to MIT to teach mechanical engineering. While at MIT he studies the challenges of tabulating data. And sometime here he sees a train conductor punching passenger tickets. And this puts the idea of what would eventually become the punch card in his mind.
Bored with teaching he moves to Washington and works for the Census Bureau. Here he refines his punch card idea. He invents this machine that reads punch cards and tabulates the data.
He starts the Tabulating Machine Company here in Georgetown.
Georgetown was a logical location for Hollerith’s business. By the early 20th century, the canal ceased to be a viable transport method, flour milling was declining as was shipping. This left the area open for new industries like lumber, cement, and manufacturing machines like Hollerith’s.
Hollerith’s company is a huge success. His machine cut two years off the time needed to tabulate the 1890 census data, even though the country’s population was larger than ever. Countries all around the world flock to Georgetown to hire the Tabulating Machine Company to do their censuses.
In 1911 the Tabulating Machine Company merged with four other firms to become the International Business Machine (IBM) company. Some of its operations remained here in Georgetown until before WWII.
Hollerith got out of what he called a “mean business” and retired to a farm on the Chesapeake Bay where he raised Guernsey cows. He dies in 1929. Hollerith is buried in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery.
And today there is still a member of the Hollerith family working in Washington, although in a different line of business. Herman’s great grandson Randy is dean of Washington National Cathedral. And although both computing and theology come at it from different angles, both try to provide insight for big questions. Both usually result in creating more questions.
IBM goes on to dominate data processing and information technology until the end of the 20th century. Today, a plaque remembers it’s humble beginnings alongside the C&O canal in Georgetown.