Bob Newhart interviews Herman Hollerith


Yesterday was the birthday of Herman Hollerith. His 40th since his birth in 1860. He’s renowned in computing circles. His work in automating the counting and of data made the United States’s 1890 Census possible. This is not the ordinary hyperbole: the 1880 Census’s data took eight years to fully collate. Hollerith’s tabulating machines took … well, six years for the full job, but they were keeping track of quite a bit of information. Hollerith’s system would go on to be used for other censuses, and also for general inventory and data-tracking purposes. His tabulating company would go on to be one of the original components of IBM. Cards, card readers, and card sorters with a clear lineage to this system would be used until fully electronic computers took over.

(It’s commonly assumed that the traditional 80-character width of a text terminal traces to the 80-hole punch cards which became the standard. Programmers particularly love to tell that tale, ignoring early computing screens that had different lengths, particularly 72 characters. More plausibly 80 characters owes to two things: it’s a nice round number, and it’s close to the number of characters you can type on a standard sheet of paper with a normal typewriter font. So it’s about the “right” length, one that we’ve been trained to accept as enough text to read at a glance.)

Well. In about 1970 IBM hired Bob Newhart to record a bit, for … fun, if that word applies to IBM. Part of the publicity for launching the famous System 370 machine. The structure echos the bit where Bob Newhart imagines being the first guy to hear of Sir Walter Raleigh’s importing of tobacco, and just how weird every bit of that is. In this bit, Newhart imagines talking on the phone with Herman Hollerith and hearing about just how this punched-card system is supposed to work. For decades, though, the film was reported lost.

What I did not know until mentioning to a friend two days ago is: the film was found! And a decade ago! In a Swedish bank vault because that’s the way this sort of thing always happens. Which is a neat bit of historical rhyming: the original fine data from the first Hollerith census of 1890 is lost, most likely destroyed in 1933 or 1934. So, please let me share with you Bob Newhart hearing about Herman Hollerith’s system. The end appears to be cut off, and there are Swedish subtitles that might just give away a couple jokes, if you can’t help paying attention to them.

Like a lot of comic work-for-hire it’s not Newhart’s best. It’s not going to displace the Voyage of the USS Codfish in my heart. There are a few spots to me where it seems like Newhart’s overlooked a good additional punch line, and I don’t know whether that reflects Newhart wanting to keep the piece from growing too long or too technical or what. It’s possible Newhart didn’t feel familiar enough with punch card technology to get too technical too. Newhart did work, briefly, as an accountant and might have had some reason to use the things. But I’m not aware of his telling any stories of doing so, and that seems a telling omission.

Still, it’s great to see this bit has been preserved, and is available. And is a Bob Newhart routine about early computer technologies, somehow.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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