In the era of Big Data, few figures are more divisive as that of the hacker. On the one hand, malicious or “black hat” hackers cause billions of dollars of damage every year, breaking into private and public networks to steal money or personal data or simply to create chaos. On the other hand, so-called ethical or “white hat” hackers use their skills in service of the public good, either by probing computer systems for security weaknesses or leaking information on government corruption and other crimes. While mostly associated with the modern digital age, the art of hacking goes back nearly a hundred years. And one of the earliest hackers was also one of the most ethical, using his skills to save millions of French citizens from the Nazis during the Second World War. This is the remarkable story of René Carmille.
The era of Big Data is a lot older than you might think, tracing its origins back to the 1880s and a daunting problem facing the United States Government. The U.S. Constitution mandates that a census be taken every 10 years so that taxes and political representation can be updated according to the changing population. The first U.S. Census took place in 1790, and for the next 90 years census data was collected and processed entirely by hand. In 1880, however, the Census Bureau faced a major crisis: the U.S. population had grown so large that the 1880 census took a full 9 years to complete; by the time the data was ready to use, it was already time for the next census. At this rate, the Bureau feared, future censuses would never be able to catch up, rendering the whole exercise pointless.
Enter Herman Hollerith, an American engineer who had worked on the 1880 census. In 1889, Hollerith patented an ingenious system for speeding up the tabulating of census data, based on the technology of punched cards. While punched cards had previously been used to automate the weaving of complex textile patterns, Hollerith’s system was the first to apply them practically to the field of data processing. Hollerith was inspired by a system introduced by the railroads to help identify and catch train robbers and other criminals. As photography at the time was a slow, cumbersome process, train tickets were instead printed with a series of physical descriptors such as height, eye colour, and facial hair which the conductor could fill out using a standard ticket punch. In this manner, a rough description of each passenger could be recorded. Hollerith realized that this system could easily be adapted to the census, and designed his own punch cards to record census data and a piano-sized machine called a Tabulator to read and process it.
The Hollerith system worked as follows. Census takers would travel around the country and record data like the number, ages, and sex of the people in each household by punching holes in the corresponding fields on the Hollerith cards. These cards would then be sent back to the census bureau for processing. An operator would insert the cards into the Tabulator one by one through a hinged hatch rather like a modern flatbed scanner or photocopier. When the hatch was closed, a grid of spring-loaded metal pins was forced against the card. Where a hole had been punched the pin passed through and made contact with a pool of mercury, completing an electrical circuit. This data was counted and displayed on a series of clock-like dials on the face of the Tabulator, to be manually read and recorded by the operator. The genius of the Tabulator, however, lay in its ability to be rewired or “programmed” to count different combinations of data – for example, unmarried males under the age 30. Hollerith also invented a device called a Sorter consisting of 13 vertical metal bins with spring-loaded lids, each of which could be programmed to collect a different combination of data. So if, for example, the operator inserted a card which included an unmarried male under 30, the bin lid programmed with that combination would pop open so the operator could drop the card in.
The Hollerith system was adopted by the Census Bureau just in time for the 1890 census, and its impact was dramatic. The use of punched cards and tabulators cut the time required to process the census data from 9 down to two years. This dramatic improvement in efficiency lead to Hollerith machines becoming standard equipment at the Census Bureau, and in 1896 Hollerith founded the Hollerith Tabulating Machine Company to sell his machines commercially. Among his first clients were the Prudential Life Insurance Company and the New York Central Railroad, the latter of which processed nearly 4 million freight waybills every year and was an ideal fit for the Hollerith system. Over the next decade Hollerith introduced a number of key innovations which made his system increasingly more efficient and powerful, including redesigned punch cards, improved keypunches for filling out those cards, printers for automatically tabulating data, automatic card feeders and sorters, and plugboards to allow the tabulators to be reprogrammed without having to physically rewire the circuitry. These innovations created a brand-new industry, and Hollerith-style tabulators – now known as “unit record machines” – were adopted by a vast array of businesses for data-heavy tasks like processing invoices and payrolls. The Information Age had officially arrived.
But for Herman Hollerith, success was not to last. In 1903 the new director of the Census Bureau, Simon North, decided that Hollerith had too much of a monopoly on data processing and banned the company’s machines from the Bureau. Then, in 1911, through stock acquisition the Tabulating Machine Company was merged with four other companies to create the Computing-Tabulating Company. Finally, in 1923, this amalgamated company changed its name to International Business Machines – better known as IBM.
Under the direction of CEO Thomas Watson, IBM would go on to dominate the unit record and later the digital computer industry, controlling over 90% of all punch card equipment in the United States by 1950. One of the keys to IBM’s success was that they never sold their machines to clients; they only ever leased them. At one point IBM even considered charging its clients for every individual punch card they used, a practice which would have netted them even more obscene profits. However, for the United States Government this was a step too far, and in 1932 IBM was taken to court for violating the 1914 Clayton Antitrust Act. Though IBM argued that the cards – for which they held the patent – were technically a component of the machines they were already leasing to clients – in 1936 the Government ultimately ruled against them. While IBM was allowed to specify the design of the cards used in its machines, clients were free to acquire the cards themselves from any source they wanted – including manufacturing them themselves. However, even this attempt to extort clients over individual punch cards was far from the most unethical activity IBM would ever be involved in.
The outbreak of the Second World War saw a dramatic surge in business for IBM. Not only did millions of fighting men and tons of military equipment need to be processed for deployment overseas, but unit record equipment quickly found new applications in the field of cryptanalysis. IBM punch card equipment proved ideally suited to searching endless reams of enciphered enemy signals searching for the rare repeats that could help crack the cipher key – a tedious task that had previously been done entirely by hand. Dozens of IBM machines were used at Allied codebreaking centres like Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire and Arlington Hall in Washington D.C, where they helped to penetrate enemy ciphers like the Nazi Germany’s Enigma and Imperial Japan’s “Purple” and shorten the war by an estimated two years.
But IBM equipment would also be put to far more sinister uses. Like dozens of American companies like Ford, General Motors, Chase Manhattan Bank, and Coca-Cola, IBM did not allow the outbreak of war to interfere with its international business dealings – even those with Nazi Germany. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the new government put out a tender for a census of the German people. By this point the Nazis had already expelled all Jewish lawyers, doctors, scientists, and other professional from their jobs, and it was abundantly clear that the true goal of this census was to identify and persecute the remaining Jews and other undesirables in Germany. Indeed, in a public statement, Reinhard Koherr, a statistician working for the Nazi Government, sinisterly announced that: “…in using statistics the government now has the road map to switch from knowledge to deeds.”
Nonetheless, Thomas Watson, the CEO of IBM, instructed the company’s German subsidiary DEHOMAG to bid on the contract, which they ultimately won. Over the next decade, hundreds of IBM unit record machines along with spare parts and punch cards were shipped to Germany, where they were immediately put to use in organizing what would eventually become the Holocaust. Machines were set up in the headquarters of the SS’s Rassenamt or Race Office and even in concentration camps like Dachau, where millions of German Jews, Roma, Communists, Homosexuals and other groups deemed politically or racially inferior were systematically identified, categorized, and earmarked for arrest, imprisonment, deportation, forced labour, or extermination. Shockingly, IBM and its subsidiary did far more than simply provide the Nazis with equipment, also sending hundreds of technicians to Germany to train SS personnel how to use and maintain the temperamental equipment. These technicians also developed custom punch cards and special codes to help the SS designate and process concentration camps, prisoner types, and causes of death. For example, Auschwitz was 001, Buchenwald 002, Dachau 003, and so on; 3 designated a homosexual, 9 an anti-social, and 8 a Jew; while 3 represented death from natural causes, 4 summary execution, 5 death by suicide, and 6 by “special treatment” – the Nazi euphemism for extermination via gas chamber. Given this intimate involvement, it is highly unlikely that IBM was unaware of what its machines were being used for, yet the flow of equipment and personnel continued unabated. In fact, so instrumental was IBM to the Nazis’ policy of genocide that in 1937 Adolf Hitler awarded Thomas Watson the Order of the German Eagle for services to the Third Reich, an honour bestowed on several other American Nazi sympathizers including Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh – and for more on the Lone Eagle’s relationship with the Nazis, please check out our sister channel’s, video “Lucky Lindy and Advancing Medical Science” on our channel Highlight History.
The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 should have ended the company’s dealings with Nazi Germany, and indeed in June 1940 Thomas Watson returned his Order of the German Eagle. But while IBM publicly feigned remorse for its pre-war actions, in the background their collaboration with the Nazis carried on as before. In 1939 Watson authorized the shipment to Germany of special IBM alphabetizing machines, which were used to round up and execute millions of Jews, intellectuals, and other undesirables during the Nazi conquest of Poland. So complicit was Watson in this policy that he even bankrolled the construction of concrete bunkers at Dachau to protect its IBM machines from British air raids. The Nazi government also offered to buy DEHOMAG outright, giving IBM the opportunity to make a clean break from its subsidiary. But Watson refused, and DEHOMAG remained under the direct control of IBM headquarters in New York. In 1940, Watson directly managed the establishment of a Dutch subsidiary tasked with identifying and rounding that country’s Jews. Aided by the Netherland’s existing Hollerith machine infrastructure and a long Dutch tradition of recording religion in the national census, this effort succeeded in murdering 102,000 of the Netherland’s 140,000 Jews – an extermination rate of 73%. In every territory they conquered, the Nazis immediately carried out a census to identify and round up its racial and political enemies – a process made all the more efficient by IBM equipment. But when the Nazis rolled into France in June 1940, they finally met their match in an unassuming civil servant named René Carmille.