On a freezing day in December 1896, an American inventor by the name of Herman Hollerith rushed to catch a train out of the Russian city of St. Petersburg. He wore a fur cap and a thick fur-lined coat with a huge collar buttoned up all the way over his ears. It covered his mouth as well as his big droopy mustache — leaving just a bit of pink flesh peeking out at the world.
Hollerith was a hypochondriac who preferred staying at home with his wife and mother-in-law, tinkering with inventions. He hated travel, and he hated traveling in Europe most of all. Like a 19th-century version of a tech bro, he was obsessed with efficiency and mocked the locals for being bogged down by time-wasting traditions. “They are all living in what happened thousands of years ago,” he wrote to his wife from Italy. “I saw them cutting lumber on the road from Naples to Pompeii, and, when I got to Pompeii, I found paintings on walls showing exactly the same way of cutting lumber.”
For all his grumbling about travel, the inventor had come far in his own life. Hollerith was only 36 years old and had been raised in a modest home by a widowed mother in New York, yet he had just spent weeks rubbing shoulders with aristocrats from one the most exotic royal dynasties in the world. And now he was on his way back home with a fat and juicy contract for his new business venture.
A few years earlier, Russian Czar Nicholas II issued an imperial decree ordering his ministers to carry out the Russian Empire’s first countrywide census. With the 1897 deadline looming, they were scrambling to comply. They knew it was going to be a monumental task — and perhaps an impossible one.
The people in charge of the census knew the only way to finish the job in a reasonable amount of time would be to use the most advanced technology on the market. And that’s where the 36-year-old Hollerith came in.