A Brief History of Databases

Stephen Fortune: “Databases are mundane, the epitome of the everyday in digital society. Despite the enthusiasm and curiosity that such a ubiquitous and important item merits, arguably the only people to discuss them are those with curiosity enough to thumb through the dry and technical literature that chronicles the database’s ascension.
Which is a shame, because the use of databases actually illuminates so much about how we come to terms with the world around us. The history of databases is a tale of experts at different times attempting to make sense of complexity. As a result, the first information explosions of the early computer era left an enduring impact on how we think about structuring information. The practices, frameworks, and uses of databases, so pioneering at the time, have since become intrinsic to how organizations manage data. If we are facing another data deluge (for there have been many), it ’s different in kind to the ones that preceded it. The speed of today’s data production is precipitated not from a sudden appearance of entirely new technologies but because the demand and accessibility has steadily risen through the strata of society as databases become more and more ubiquitous and essential to aspects of our daily lives. And turns out we’re not drowning in data; we instead appear to have made a sort of unspoken peace with it, just as the Venetians and Dutch before us. We’ve built edifices to house the data and, witnessing that this did little to stem the flow, have subsequently created our enterprises atop and around them. Surveying the history of databases illuminates a lot about how we come to terms with the world around us, and how organizations have come to terms with us.

Unit Records & Punch Card Databases

The history of data processing is punctuated with many high water marks of data abundance. Each successive wave has been incrementally greater in volume, but all are united by the trope that data production exceeds what tabulators (whether machine or human) can handle. The growing amount of data gathered by the 1880 US Census (which took human tabulators 8 of the 10 years before the next census to compute) saw Herman Hollerith kickstart the data processing industry. He devised “Hollerith cards” (his personal brand of punchcard) and the keypunch, sorter, and tabulator unit record machines. The latter three machines were built for the sole purpose of crunching numbers, with the data represented by holes on the punch cards. Hollerith’s Tabulating Machine Company was later merged with three other companies into International Business Machines (IBM), an enterprise that casts a long shadow over this history of databases….”