A History of Data Processing

one perspective

And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

                                                 W. B. Yeats

updated 06-12
again 1-14

I spent a few years teaching computer history.  The text books focused on what we like to refer to as "cool" or "neat" stuff such as binary code, bits, bytes, algorisms, etc.  Much of this material did not show how early pioneers around the turn of the 20th century were suddenly confronted with and had to work with large amounts of data.  Truly there was a lot involved in data processing history during that time.  It became the world of the tabulation industry or the TAB world.  In such an environment a computer was unknown or treated like an unimportant novilty.  Data processing was a huge industry that did actual things, not just a bunch of weird math obsessed wizards who lived a dream life in a dream world.  Data processing dealt with large quantities of data and did wonderful things with that data long before the first bit or byte existed.  In fact solid-state computers had very little to do with data processing before 1960, and then only gradually.  Business computers at that time grew out of a much larger and more stabilized framework, the unit record business, less glamorous, very boring and therefore far less recognized or even acknowledged historically.  

This is a brief exploration of the history of data processing.  The first "computers" were not electronic at all but were a collection ingenious mechanical machines.


Computer history texts contain the usual material: Charles Babbage and his difference engine, along with his likable assistant Ada Lovelace, who was considered the first programmer, whatever that means.  I don't know how that idea came about or even if it is significant but it does lend charm to a dull nerative.

Existing literature also is sure to discuss the typical advances of the heavily funded government ENIAC program during WW2, and the more notable achievements of the blessed trinity, John Bardeen, Walter Brattain & William Shockley, inventers of solid-state circuitry but these inventions did not come anywhere close to immediately effecting business data processing, they were developments in basic research which only much later contributed to computer development.

Missing from this standard picture were some of the critically important but less attractive people below the surface realities that were not at all glamorous or showy or even particularly newsworthy, but beyond doubt played a huge part of the development of large data management methods.  These realities laid the structure for all modern information systems.  Computers were only a glitzy side show.



Processing more data faster has always been a big part of industrialized growth, and being able to do it quickly with little error was always the goal.  What becomes an obvious fact is that it doesn’t take a computer to process large amounts of data.  Data processing can be done and was done for a very long time by using plain everyday mechanical devices consisting of wires, coils, solenoids, magnetos, magnets, cardboard and electrical switches, certainly not fast or flashy, but done all the same and done quite accurately.  

Imagine for a second that computers never came along at all and the internet never happened.  What would we be like as a society.  Probably OK.  There would be more jobs, more boring work, more newspapers, less wall street crime, much more reading, and our paychecks would continue to be printed and come just as they had since the advent of data processing around 1900.  The stock market would continue to work, the government would continue to run, we would continue to be fed and clothed.  We fought a world war with over 10 million men in arms and many support structures in place and we did all the paychecks, banking, inventory, transportation, supply and support without a single computer.

Needless to say all Modern computer data processing today is based on the groundwork developed by unit record technology.  Unit Record operations lasted a long time, well over 70 years starting about the beginning of the 1900s.  There were no computers being used anywhere.  None.  There was no Babbage or Lovelace or Pascal.  There was no binary code or polish notation, or bubble sorts.  These things were not needed. It had already been figured out.



Quite expectedly data processing started in a very physical way with the idea of storing data in a more accessible form than just ledgers.  The first practical system to store and manipulate digital data was by using cards, not altogether a new concept.  The introduction of a practical use of digital card files solved a big problem in data storage.  The other problem of data manipulation was solved by a number of ingenious machines.  Such storage systems and processing machines started around 1890, many years before electronic computers were ever practical.  Unlike the theoretical and whiz-bang exploits of early pioneers in the field of bits and bytes and complex operations, the early type of data storage was totally physical.

Herman Hollerith started it all.  He did not use esoteric calculations involving wheels and cogs and difference engines but instead employed a very practical way to capture and store data and produce usable results.  His inventions were quickly used in businesses and government in a time when innovation was badly needed and the country was growing like mad.



Hollerith worked for the Census Department during the 1880 census.  He decided that he could develop a better way to collect, store, summarize, and report census data rather than just doing it tediously in hand recorded ledgers and adding machines.  He decided to design a card that contained little punched holes.  These holes represented digital information which was electronically counted or tabulated by a machine that he also designed.  The census of 1890 was completed in just three years, even before the 1880 census was done.  

In 1896 Hollerith left the Census Department and struck out on his own, setting up a company that by 1924 become IBM.



As time went on data processing had to grow to keep up with demand.  In it's subsequent evolution there were at least four discernable technological stages that occurred which were referred to as generations.  


The four generations of data processing