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Tabulating machines

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Tabulating machines managed medical information between the late 1880s and 1960s. The amount of medical information recorded by practitioners and medical scientists had grown enormously.

The tabulating machine was invented in the 1880s by the American statistician Herman Hollerith. It was an electrical device that rapidly sorted and analysed information recorded on punched cards. By punching holes into record cards, information such as age or gender could be represented. The machine then rapidly sorted the cards and produced useful statistical information. Hollerith used his machine to tabulate information collected in the United States 1890 census.

By the 1950s doctors and medical scientists used tabulating machines to manage data such as patient records and mortality statistics. They also became vital to epidemiological studies. These studies were designed to discover the distribution and cause of disease within populations. Doll and Hill’s study into the cause of the lung cancer epidemic in 1950 depended on tabulating machines to process large amounts of information. Thus a tabulating machine revealed smoking was the most significant factor common to lung cancer sufferers.

By the 1960s tabulating machines were replaced by computers, which stored and processed information electronically. This made them more powerful and avoided the need to store and process millions of paper records. Electronic data are easy to transfer, so there are concerns about the privacy of patient records.


W Aspray (ed.), Computing Before Computers (Iowa State University Press, 1990)

G Austrian, Herman Hollerith: Forgotten Giant of Information Processing, (New York: Columbia University Press 1982)

R Doll and A B Hill, 'Smoking and carcinoma of the lung. Preliminary report', British Medical Journal, 2 (1950), pp 739-748

H L Dunn and L Townsend, ‘Application of Punched Card Methods to Hospital Statistics’, Journal of the American Statistical Association, 30, (1935), pp 244-248

K Reid-Green,The history of census tabulation’, Scientific American, 260 (1989) pp 78-83

A Norberg, ‘High-technology calculation in the early 20th century: punched card machinery in business and government’ Technology and culture, 31 (1990), pp 753-779

J Howell, Technology in the hospital: transforming patient care in the early twentieth century (John Hopkins University Press, 1995)

S J Reiser, Medicine and the Reign of Technology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978



The collecting and classifying of numerical data.


Has come to refer to the socially constructed roles and differences between men and women; as opposed to 'sex' which refers to the biological distinctions between male and female.


An official (normally governmental) count of population.


The number of deaths which occur in a given area or period, from a particular disease, etc.; the average frequency of death; death rate.


The study of epidemic disease, including its spread, causes and methods of control.