Columbia University Computing History

The Columbia Difference Tabulator - 1931

Photo: [103]. Rear view; see below for font view.

In 1930, Columbia Professor Ben Wood, who had begun Columbia's half-century long special relationship with IBM in 1928-29 when he founded the Columbia Statistical Bureau with a large grant of standard late-1920s punched-card machines from Thomas J. Watson, approached Watson again with a request for a machine more suited to the needs of statistics than business. Watson obliged, and had engineers James Bryce and George Daly in IBM's Endicott plant build a gigantic tabulator capable of accumulating sums of squares, raising numbers to powers, and so forth by means of direct subtraction (the first punched-card machine to do this) plus a novel system of ten paired accumulators.

   The new machine "mass-produced the sums of products by the method of progressive digiting and read punch cards at the rate of 150 per minute. It contained ten 10-position counters (left, Photo: [103]; click to enlarge) with provision for shifting totals internally from one counter to another – a capability that anticipated a future function of computers." [9]. The new machine, variously called the "Columbia Machine", the "Statistical Calculator", the "Difference Tabulator", and (because of its massive size) the "Packard", was delivered and installed in 1931.

Allan Olley reports (November 2013) that this machine still exists. It's in the "basement" (not available for viewing) of the "nation's attic", the Smithsonian Instition; here's a modern photo:

The IBM Statistical Tabulator 1931
CLICK HERE to see the Smithsonian page for this machine.

Reference [103] shows a truncated clipping from a New York World article supposedly dated "March 1, 1920" (which is obviously a mistake, since it refers to the Statistical Bureau in Hamilton Hall, which did not exist until 1929) called "SUPER COMPUTING MACHINES SHOWN":

   New statistical machines with the mental power of 100 skilled mathematicians in solving even highly complex algebraic problems were demonstrated yesterday for the first time before a group of psychologists, educational research workers and statisticians in the laboratories of the Columbia University Statistical Bureau in Hamilton Hall.

One of the tabulators exhibited can work out and print the results of as many as twelve difficult problems in just a single rapid operation. It is designed to handle differences and reckon powers of numbers up to the tenth, whereas such machines hiterto [sic] have been able to compute only the second power of numbers.

Richard Warren and Robert M. Mendenhall, research workers at Columbia and statistical consultants for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, are responsible for most of the inventions which were first announced at the educator's convention in Atlantic City last week.

These new machines will be a tremendous boon to research, Dr. Ben. D. Wood, Director of the Statistical Bureau, said yesterday, through making statistical procedure more accurate, much faster and less expensive. With the assistance of the new tabu-

(The clipping breaks off here.)   I can't imagine what they are talking about, unless it's the Columbia Difference Tabulator or a prototype of it.

  1. Bashe, Charles J.; Lyle R. Johnson; John H. Palmer; Emerson W. Pugh, IBM's Early Computers, MIT Press (1985).
  2. Brennan, Jean Ford, The IBM Watson Laboratory at Columbia University: A History, IBM, Armonk NY (1971)
  3. Eames, Charles and Ray, A Computer Perspective: Background to the Computer Age, Harvard University Press. First Edition 1973; Second Edition 1990 [103].
  4. Pugh, Emerson W., Building IBM: Shaping an Industry and its Technology, The MIT Press (1995).


Last Updated: Fri Nov 8 14:35:58 2013

Frank da Cruz / / Columbia University Computing History