The Georgetown Connection: IBM’s Birthday and the Computer

Today marks the 100th birthday of International Business Machines, or “IBM”, one of the flagship corporations of American capitalism.  No doubt, gentle reader, you do not need to be told what IBM is, as “Big Blue” has been a dominant player in the global economy for many decades.  However what you may not know, even if you are fortunate enough to have visited Georgetown, is that the company has its origins, in part, here in the 18th century village which The Courtier calls home.

The Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, as IBM was known until a name change in 1924, came to be as a result of several mergers which went into effect on this date in 1911.  Back then IBM’s annual revenues totaled just under $1 million, and it had about 1300 employees.  It was formed from the union of four companies – one of which, The Tabulating Machine Company, was headquartered in Georgetown and run by Herman Hollerith, a resident of the village.

Hollerith arrived in Washington after completing his Ph.D. at Columbia in 1890 and winning a competition sponsored by the U.S. government to come up with a faster, cheaper way to tabulate census data.  The tabulating company he founded was originally located in downtown D.C., but Hollerith subsequently  moved the fledgling business to Georgetown in 1892.  The first home of the company in the village was an old cooper’s shop on 31st Street, along the C&O Canal.

The business expanded into a neighboring 1842 shipping warehouse that had been built to deal with the barge traffic along the canal, which is now known as “Canal Square”.  IBM later placed a plaque here to commemorate the importance of the site in the history of the company.  However from a linguistic perspective, Hollerith’s Georgetown business  had wider ripple effects.

It was from about this point that the term “computer” started to come into more widespread use, and to refer to machines rather than people. The term had first been used to describe someone who worked on the tabulation of figures back in the 17th century.  Indeed, this is what the workers – nearly all of whom were women – in Hollerith’s Georgetown business were called.  However as time went by, the meaning of the term slowly began to apply more and more to the machine doing the work, rather than to the individual inputting the data.  Otherwise, we might still today refer to our laptops and desktops as “tabulators” rather than “computers”.

Needless to say, thanks to his inventiveness and business sense Hollerith became a very wealthy man indeed.  He purchased the historic estate known as Mackall Square on 29th Street, which features a large, Federal-style house built and subsequently added to between about 1790 and 1820.  However Hollerith himself never lived in the old house, which he rented out.  Instead, he subdivided the property to build a enormous, four-story, 11,400 square foot Georgian Revival style home called Hollerith House in 1911, the same year his first child was born and his company merged to form what is now IBM.  The homes sit in the upper heights of the East Village, which is generally considered the most exclusive area of the neighborhood.

Many little Holleriths followed in rapid succession, until there were three boys and three girls.  The entire family was active in local Georgetown society, as members of Christ Church – the more well-heeled of the three Episcopal churches in Georgetown – and thanks to Mrs. Hollerith and her daughters co-founding the Georgetown Garden Club in 1924.  The Georgetown Garden Club is very much alive and well today, organizing the annual Georgetown Garden Tour, which is always heavily attended and covered by the Washington press.  It recently hosted its 83rd tour of some of the village’s best private gardens, large and small.

So much of Georgetown’s history disappears or is forgotten, due to the passage of time and the waxing and waning of fortunes, that it is a pleasure to be able to not only clearly trace the history of IBM in the village, but also be able to see the buildings connected with the story of the founding of the corporation.

Hollerith House in Georgetown


2 thoughts on “The Georgetown Connection: IBM’s Birthday and the Computer

  1. There is a biography of Hollerith, Herman Hollerith: Forgotten Giant of Information Processing, by Geoffrey D. Austrian, published in 1982. It is an interesting account of this creative and eccentric man. In it he says that Hollerith married in 1890 and the first of his children was born in 1891. The others followed quickly after that. According to Austrian, Hollerith was in Washington much earlier, first working for the Census Bureau in 1879 at the age of 19. He then went to teach at MIT, and it was there that his inventive mind began to put together the idea of punch cards for tabulating census and other data. This would lead to the use of his new tabulating machines for the 1890 census.

    In addition to his homes in Georgetown, Hollerith always seemed drawn to country living. He lived in Garrett Park MD for several years in the 1890’s, and he purchased land near Rockville Pike and Montrose Road where he built his own farm called “Dutch Tussel” about 1902. He also later owned a farm in Virginia where he spend most of his retirement years.

    Nancy Schwartz


    • Nancy, thanks for reading! And for the clarification on the dates of his childrens’ birth. There is only so much research one can glean from the internet, and some of it is inaccurate. Ah the perils of blogging…


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