The IET Archives recently received a donation of 6 booklets dating from the 1920s to 1940s covering the subject of tabulating machines which give a fascinating insight into the history of computing and also the forerunners of the well-known computing companies IBM and ICL.

What are tabulating machines?

The tabulating machine was an electromechanical machine designed to assist in summarizing information and, later, accounting information. The machines used punched or perforated cards to add numbers coded on those cards. A typical punched card is shown below.


Invented by Hermann Hollerith, the machine was developed to help process data for the 1890 US Census. It led to a class of machines, known as unit record equipment, and the data processing industry. The term ‘Super Computing’ was used by the New York World newspaper in 1931 to refer to large custom-built tabulator that IBM made for Columbia University.

According to a 1921 article about the Powers tabulating system;

“The complete installation consists of 3 different machines, all of which are electrically driven. These are known as the Punch, Sorter and Tabulator. The whole of these machines are quite easy to operate, and any unexperienced girl can be taught to use either in an ordinary working day.”

Which companies were involved with and made tabulating machines?

Hollerith started his own business in 1896, founding the Tabulating Machine Company. In 1911, 4 corporations, including Hollerith’s firm merged to form the Computing Tabulating Recording Company (CTR) and in 1924 CTR was renamed International Business Machines (IBM). A Hollerith tabulator illustrated in a 1929 booklet is shown below.


A competitor for the Hollerith Machine was the Powers Tabulating Machine Company which in 1915 established a European operation in the UK through the Accounting and Tabulating Machine Company of Great Britain Limited which in 1929 was renamed Powers-Samas Accounting Machine Limited.

During WWII the company produced large numbers of Typex cipher machines, derived from the German Enigma machine, for use by the British Armed forces and government departments. In 1959 Powers-Samas merged with the competing company the British Tabulating Machine Company to form International Computers and Tabulators which went on to become part of International Computers Limited (ICL). A Powers tabulator illustrated in a 1929 booklet is shown below.


The changing nature of the 20th century office

The typing pools of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s might seem very old fashioned now, but in the 1930s there were whole departments of large businesses that were dedicated to card punching and tabulating. The images below show the Punching Department and the sorting / tabulating rooms respectively at Cornhill Insurance Company in London in 1938.



The collection of booklets has been catalogued (archive reference NAEST 233) and is available to consult at the IET Archive Centre, Savoy Hill House.