The Hollerith Machine

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He counteth the number of the stars and telleth them all by name..."

The Hollerith Machine, invented by a man who's company would come to be known as IBM, or International Business Machines was a form of a machine-computer-sorter, which was used extensively in the holocaust to 'categorize' Jews in the final solution. It was a forerunner of today's computer along with other machines, and aided the Nazis in the selection of workers, deportations and censuses of concentration camps,trains and death lists. The American-produced machine, by Herman Hollerith, the son of German parents, became a means of efficient genocide and persecution, saving money and time in the process of Endlosungor The Final Solution (of the Jewish Question).

Hollerith and the birth of the Tabulating Machine.

The Man Who Invented the 'Hanging Chad'

In the last Presidential election, there was much discussion about 'hanging chads' on punch ballots in Florida. The reference was to the name of the small hole and fragment of cardstock that remains after being punched. While it may be hard to imagine a connection of the amusing and controversial problem, the technology that produced it, traced back to inventions by a man at the turn of the
Patent No. 395,782 of January 8, 1889 as follows: "The herein described method of compiling statistics which consists in recording separate statistical items pertaining to the individual by holes or combinations of holed punched in sheets of electrically non-conducting material, and bearing a specific relation to each other and to a standard, and then counting or tallying such statistical items separately or in combination by means of mechanical counters operated by electro-magnets the circuits through which are controlled by the perforated sheets, substantially as and for the purpose set forth."
century named Herman Hollerith.

Hollerith was born February 29, 1860 of German Parents. He was educated at Columbia University, receivng his PhD in 1890. In his early career, he began to develop a technology using punched cards for data gathering which would affect technology in the rail industry, [collating ticket identification information],1 indirectly music, and print such as player pianos, typeset, and ultimately the collation of identification information in Census taking and other I.D. related collections. Trained as a Statistician, he developed "Jacquard's punched card" for census data, a prototype of the later 'keypunch card' which supplanted even the UNIX version: an 80 column card recording data for analysis. Early cards developed before the tabulating machine were used by the New York City Board of Health, for mortality rates, printing fabric note,4and other endeavors involving an over-card 'scoring' not unlike a method still used to day for smaller number grade scoring.2

The Hollerith Machine, a tabulating machine used with the cards was developed to 'tabulate' the information on the cards. In addition to his other creative inventions Hollerith invented the first card-feed machine which was the prototype for the keypunch and 'card hopper' used in the 60s to early 80s, making the system viable for data analysis. In conjunction with these inventions, the Statistician developed a method of 'combinatorial counting' which allowed for descriptive data to be sifted and compared. The reason for the invention of the machines, was to reduce the time needed in analysis of data, such as census data, to increase the ease of sorting large amounts of data, and save money by the process. Hollerith died in November of 1929, 4 years before Hitler took the Chancellorship and Presidency of Germany. Developed for the purposes of a scientist or statistician, the next few years would see the American made machine used for sinister purposes. Hollerith believed that the machine would produce inerrant results if the punches were correct.

The 1890 US Census & the 'Hollerith' Machine

The first great test of the Hollerith system and machines was in 1890, in the US System of that year. At that time, there were approximately 60 million residents in the U.S. Previous censuses were tabulated by hand and were so time-consuming, that it took much if not most of the whole time between censuses to compile the statistics. In 1890, the Hollerith Machine and cards were used to tabulate the data. The result? The statistics were finished two years early and over five million dollars was saved. 3 The early rudimentary machine proved to be an efficient means of keeping accurate data on large numbers of people. The success of the Hollerith Machine in efficiently providing clean data in the census was so great, that the future of the technology was secured.

Hollerith Machine and IBM

In 1896, Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company (TMC) which would become the predecessor to IBM. One of the first accomplishments of the company was the development of the first 'keypunch' machine. By 1906, the technology had developed to the first 'Tabulator' in which a rudimentary form of 'programming' would be possible. By 1928, the 80 column data storage card was in place. The name of TMC was changed to the Computer Tabulating Recording Company, (CTR) and in 1924, CTR became IBM, the now famous computing company, 9 years before the Third Reich took control of the German Government, and 15 years before the beginning of WWII3

How the Machine Works

The Machine the Nazis would use to compile their data was only a slightly more sophisticated version of the machine used in the 20s. Hollerith developed a punch press in which wires would pass through nail press points , punching the card at a data point, and through the punched hole, connecting with mercury, which would produce a closed circuit, and send an electrical impulse to analog meters, clocklike in appearance. [not unlike electric meters today]. Readings could then be taken. By the 1940s, the machines had the advantage of automatic card feeds and sorters, allowing the Nazis to sort, for example persons in a ghetto deportation for work or non-work, and type of work. The numbering of people in the Camps facilitated the collection of data, at least in some cases. The machine worked just as Hollerith had predicted for normal uses: great numbers were processed with efficiency, ease, and accuracy. It is very possible that the processing and deportation of Jewish and other victims would not have been possible, without the timesaving machine.

The Tabulating Machine Company becomes IBM

By 1924, the Company became IBM, which would go on to become the flagship corporation in the Computing industry until the advent of Apple, Sun Technologies and Microsoft. The war years saw only increase for IBM in technology, world trade, profit and power. By the time Hollerith had died, IBM had full corporate responsibility for the machines which would be used in the Holocaust, and was the agent of sales for the 'computer-sorter' to Nazi Germany. It appears that sales continued during the war despite restraints placed by the U.S. Government during war time, and may have even continued clandestinely while we were at war with Germany. IBM continues as a worldwide

IBM Supplies the Nazis

IBM was already involved in world trade before the advent of the Nazis. A review of Black's book about the Nazis and IBM states

as IBM AND THE HOLOCAUST by Edwin Black reveals, the world that IBM and the Third Reich occupied in the 1930s and 40s was a terrifyingly small place where corporate America not only tolerated Nazi policies, but may have profited from them. Black has assembled government files, IBM letters and correspondence as well as newspaper headlines from the period to form his argument. He asserts that one of America's most powerful corporations willingly supplied the Nazis with technology that organized, tabulated, and analyzed population data --- making possible mass deportations and executions.
Thomas Watson in the 30s headed IBM developing an international market. In 1937, Hitler awarded Watson a Medal of Honor; the relationship between the Nazis and IBM was amiable. 6 By a clever and intense international marketing strategy, IBM was established. Because of a strong German community in the US and because of the usual corporate ethics of 'business is business', the trade with Germany lasted far into the war even after restraints had been placed and even as the US entered the war. IBM provided the tabulators without which, the number of victims processed would not have been possible.

Ethics and War Crimes:the Prolonging & Efficiency of War

it is clear that the Genocide of the European Jews 1933-45 was fundamentally indebted to the use of technology, and that technology was not a peripheral or secondary medium, but an absolutely essential medium for the execution of the so-called "Final Solution" of the "Jewish Problem." 5

Ethics and morality in any war or in business are often utilitarian at best and often lapse into non-existence.

The Efficient Slaughter

The efficiency of the Third Reich one can hardly fault. Eichmann who oversaw not only the Bureau of Jewish Affairs, but also procurement, streamlined his office and process. Speer, Hitler's Architect and head of Production, made such radical improvements in mass production and assembly lines for the war effort that it would be later considered a war crime. One observer commented that when meeting Eichmann, rather than finding what he expected to be a monster of the Third Reich, he instead found a mousy, bureaucrat, intimating that the 'business' of war and genocide was carried off in Germany not with moral constraint or consideration, but methodically and pragmatically. The Hollerith Machine made it possible to handle large numbers of victims in a short time. If instead of the tabulator-sorter the Nazis had had to process every deportee by hand, it would have required an extraordinary effort, a great ly increased number of processors, and a much longer time with much greater error. The 'efficient slaughter' was able to take place due to the mass processing.

Speer & the Crime of a Streamlined War

While Speer is better known for his architecture and city planning, the fuhrer buildings and design of concentrations camps, the crime he was charged with in the end was basically of streamlining production and war efforts such that hundreds of thousands of lives were lost which might have been saved by the prolonging of the war. The charges at Nuremberg read as follows:

Planning, Productions Counts:III,IV War Crimes, Crimes Against Humanity

Sentenced to 20 years;served in Spandau

In international law, it is not only the ones who commit the atrocities who are sought out and punished, but the ones who planned the war, developed methods lending to the depth of cruelty and number of lives lost, and other methods which add unnecessarily to war efforts. In modern war, those most guilty for war are often far from the battlefield: they are the ones who enact law, plan the war, devise mechanisms and methods to kill, and make decisions which often result in the difference between genocide and conventional war. Speer worked intimately with Hitler in devising the Fuhrer Buildings and in planning neo-baroque and grandiose structures which were to be placed in palatial capitals in the major cities of Germany. A great part of that plan though, was the eitiology or foundation of the need for massive slave labor in quarry work and other projects which Jewish slaves and others were used for such as roadwork, canal and ditch digging, general earthworks and other endeavors. While one may consider a designer as less culpable, the degree of the design and planning resulted in a new institution of slavery which had not been seen in the same degree since Rome and Egypt. Additionally, Speer made decisions regarding advisors: who to listen to and who not to. Speer aided in the incorporation of streamlining production methods used by Ford in the US, which led to such efficiency and increase in production that the war was estimated in the war crimes trials to have lasted as much as an additional year and a half, resulting in not only deaths but the destruction of Europe. Unlike the other Nazis though, Speer was one of the few repentant men in the Reich--- he came to deeply regret the degree of destruction which the Nazis perpetrated under the blind obedience to Hitler. Said Speer,
"One seldom recognizes the devil when he has his hand."
Speer's authenticity in repentance has been called in question recently, as he appears to refer constantly to collective guilt as opposed to personal guilt. During the war though, he did oppose Hitler's scorch and burn policies and even against orders in the last days of the war attempted to make decisions which would be good for Germany as opposed to the regime of the Reich. He was not in favor of destroying Germany in the event of losing the war, as were others at the top.

See "Cross Examination of A. Speer

What Was IBM guilty of ?

IBM, like many other Corporations at the time of WWII was interested in the same thing as other businesses: profit and growth. As such, to be realistic, moral concerns may be voiced at the heads of Fortune 500 companies, but there is primarily one ethic: to succeed with as little consequence as possible. The fact that IBM had a market in Germany before WWII is not unique: many corporations did. Many corporations also traded unfairly abroad, and some even used slave labor or human subjects for medical trials, profiting off the Nazis horrific 'Final Solution'. So, like other corporations, IBM can probably be faulted with not obeying trade restraints, having an amoral approach in the business world and supplying a mechanism which aided and abetted genocide and an adversary we fought against. Perhaps the greatest point of culpability is that they are accused of continuing to provide the Hollerith Machines even after gaining information that they were being used for processing human beings for death and slavery. When a company provides a product, especially a technological instrument, the product itself may not be inherently good or bad. The tabulator was an example of this: by itself it had been productive in fabric printing, music and the census. IT was the intent and motive of the Nazis in using the morally neutral time-saving machine to ease the task of genocide. Even then, if a company finds out their product may be used for sinister purposes, most ethicists feel they have a moral obligation (in some countries a legal one) to stop the supply. In the case of IBM, there were added issues of abetting the enemy in wartime: if Germany had not been supplied with the HOllerith Machines, many lives would have been saved and the war effort in Germany would have been far more difficult. The corporate responsibility and their lack of cessation of business ties, even after information was given, is the greatest error and sin.

Are Modern Corporations Responsible for the 'Sins of their Fathers'?

The issues of IBM and the Hollerith Machine, and other companies such as I.G.Farben, Bayer, Mercedes-Benz, Ford and others who either supplied the Nazis with tools they needed or even outright purchased slave labor, vary from ones of corporate responsibility for actions without knowledge, to blatant guilt at putting profit above the most basic human concern such as in purchasing/renting slaves simply because they are inexpensive labor meaning a higher profit margin. This issue has not died and today, in "third world" countries clothing factories for example 'employ' large numbers of persons of all ages working 12 to 16 hour days for a few cents an hour to keep inexpensive clothing on the racks at local department stores in the US. Even in the US, slavery has become an issue as business owner maximize the misuse of illegal aliens , giving them sustenance and little else in exchange for a greater profit margin.

Is technology always good?

When a company does NOT KNOW about an illegal or grossly unethical use of a neutral product, it is difficult to hold the company responsible . A neutral item such as a fork, could blind or maim someone, but we would not hold a fork manufacturer culpable for such a cruel act. On the other hand, if one found out their product was being used in the commission of a crime on a regular basis, we would certainly hold the company guilty at least in part if they failed to at least mitigate the circumstances either by cessation of transactions, or at least warnings. Tobacco companies have known for years that cigarette smoking causes cancer, but they lobby against responsibility, and have been held to little else but warnings and some controls. So profit and merchandising as the highest value inevitably leads to negative and even devastating consequences if unchecked.

These companies though, who contributed support to the genocide of the Jews and vulnerable of Europe are even now being held responsible years later for their indirect and direct actions which increased the war effort of the Germans, caused more of our (Allies) lives to be lost, increased the millions of deaths, deportations and slavery, and carried the world into a generation of genocides which would follow. We allow even in international law that those who have done such things would be punished.

When claims though of restitution come late in the process {e.g. restitution for Afro-American slavery 150 years later} the question comes up again of whether modern day corporations are responsible for the sins of their predecessors, and in most cases, the answer is yes, although there is a time factor. Our restitution to the Japanese-Americans for illegal suspension civil rights was late in coming, but after 50 years, some restitution was made. Companies like Mercedes-Benz not only made some restitution but decades later joined in holocaust education and memorial funding, to prevent future occurrences. However, it is now 60 years since the last year of the Holocaust , since Auschwitz and the camps were liberated and many families now are only beginning to get back a portion of their wealth, often without the increase of 60 years. When a company such as iBM does find out and continues supplying it can be held responsible. If a company does not know it probably will have lessened or no responsibility. Some companies do learn from their mistakes, and make efforts to restore and rectify. Many spend just as much trying to hide a troubling history: the 'repentant' corporation often looks better to the public.


What became of the Hollerith Technology?

The Hollerith Technology has been tainted with a negative bent because of its devastating use in the holocaust; it makes its positive use in census taking pale in comparison. The machine, though was simply a machine: it could have been used just as easily in helping people choose vocations, or deciding where to allot resources instead of in assignment to brutal deaths. The technology used became the basis of our keypunch machines and card-readers which by the 50s and 60s led to computer programming and statistical analysis. That technology led to modern computer processing and what once took weeks or months now takes seconds. Even as late as 1981, as a graduate student, we still used large main frames which took up a whole room and keypunched data for our research, a technology dating back to Hollerith. The most essential lesson from the use of the Hollerith Machine is not the machine itself, but the motive and means for which the machine is used. The evil we associate with the machine, comes back in the end to a heart issue: modern computers which track identification can still be used for the good in reducing fraud, or making life easier, or can be used to produce an even more 'efficient slaughter'. The Information/Computer Industry must quickly learn from the past and enter discussions on that ethical use.


  • 1Wikipedia: Hollerith Biography

  • 2History of the Computer

  • 3Inventure Picture Hall of Fame: Herman Hollerith

  • 4

    noteThe Jacquard Punch Card technology was used close to the original method in Hollerith's beginning inventions, but later developed into the 80 column card used up to 20 years ago. The Jacquard technology was also used in the mechanics of printing fabric. See Jacquard Mechanism and Cards

  • 5Robert S. Leventhal

  • 6IBM AND THE HOLOCAUST: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation Edwin Black Crown Copyright (c) 1995 Information and Technology in the Holocaust