Wine and Computers: The Surprising Washington Origins of Two Industries

Perkins Library, Duke University

Perkins Library, Duke University

John Adlum

John Adlum (WikiMedia)

Normanstone’s near neighbor came to be the seventy-six acres of Northview, purchased by Cornelius and Margaret Barber in 1834, located where the Naval Observatory complex now spreads. Margaret was the daughter of Revolutionary War veteran, land surveyor and horticulturist John Adlum, the author of the first book on indigenous American viticulture (1823). Adlum’s own estate, The Vineyard, was not far to the north, between the present-day Tilden and Van Ness Streets and Reno Road. Extant letters to Normanstone’s matriarch, Sophia Cropley, including ones from Robert Barnard while still in England, are addressed at Major Adlum’s, where she resided probably as governess to the two Adlum daughters. At The Vineyard, on the banks of Rock Creek, Adlum developed twenty-two varieties of grape, most notably the Catawba, a hybrid of American and European vines (although its precise origins are debated). It soon became the major grape in the fledgling American wine industry, producing a palatable product for European tastes. One customer was Nicholas Longworth, who took Adlum’s slips back to his farm in Ohio and grew the vine with great success, establishing the first commercially viable winery in the United States. Adlum is one among others called the “Father of American Viticulture.”

In other correspondence, with his brother-in-law in London, Barnard, a member of the Columbian Horticultural Society, considered becoming a vintner himself at Normanstone. While there were orchards on the land, wine-making was an enterprise that did not come to commercial fruition, although, as at Northview, wine was produced for home consumption. The Adlums, Barbers and Barnards relationships appeared to be close with Sophia Barnard as a witness to Cornelius Barber’s will. The connections with the two families reached a sad point when Margaret Barber sued to regain a loan of $2000 given after Barnard died intestate (the same year as her mother) and the family could not pay the death taxes (National Intelligencer, 6 November 1861). Barnard had been designated trustee for Major Adlum’s widow’s estate.

Adlum Wine

Adlum Wine

The evidence of what was once at the location of the British Embassy most likely would be obscured if it were not for both the archival tendencies through prodigious generations of the family, and that a granddaughter, Lucia Beverly Talcott (1865-1944), married the inventor and computer pioneer Herman Hollerith (1860-1929). Hollerith’s papers, a gift of his heirs, which include the early history of his wife’s family, are now divided between the Prints & Photographs and the Manuscript Divisions of the Library of Congress as well as the Special Collections Research Center of the George Washington University (Barnard-Talcott Hollerith Family Papers, 1790-1858) and The Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

Herman Hollerith (U.S. Census)

Herman Hollerith (U.S. Census)

Born in Buffalo, New York, and educated at Columbia University, Hollerith worked on the 1880 Census. After an academic position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a railway engineering stint in St. Louis, he came once again to government work, as a statistical engineer in the Patent Office in Washington in 1883. His future wife’s mother, Theodosia L. Barnard Talcott Hambleton (1840-1925), was also employed there as a clerk from 1869 to 1899, one of the first female government career employees. After her husband Charles Talcott’s death in 1867, Theodosia continued to live at Normanstone with her mother and sisters. According to Hollerith biographer Geoffrey D. Austrian, Theodosia’s professional position kept her family, including her son-in-law, financially solvent.

Holerith House, Georgetown (J.Blakely)

Holerith House, Georgetown (J.Blakely)

Hollerith started his own business, “Expert and Solicitor of Patents” (with Theodosia’s son, Edmund Talcott, as his first employee) and developed an earlier idea for the use of punched cards in combination with a machine. His Hollerith Electric Tabulating System (later the Computer-Tabulating-Recording Company) eventually became the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM). Hollerith’s machines were used for the 1890 Census and other countries sought his services and patented system. He was married at Normanstone on 15 September 1890, returned to live there as a newlywed, and, during a period of financial hardship in 1895 to 1896, moved back with his wife and (then) three children. Despite his aversion to property taxes (according to the IBM archives), Hollerith owned a house at 2612 P Street that he rented out (listed as “Heirs of Robert and Sophia Barnard”); a building for his operations on 31st Street and the Canal; a farm in Mathews County, Virginia; and built a grand new home for his family of six children, on the other side of Dumbarton Oaks, which was completed in 1911. The families would walk between Normanstone and the new property at 1617 29th Street along the old country road, Lovers’ Lane.

Hollerith Factory on the canal in Georgetown (J.Blakely)

Hollerith Factory on the canal in Georgetown (J.Blakely)

Hollerith Plaque (J.Blakely)

Hollerith Plaque (J.Blakely)

Notes & Sources
Lovers Lane (J.Blakely)

Lovers’ Lane (J.Blakely)

The punched card system invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1805 for the French textile industry was later adapted by Charles Babbage for his calculator. Hollerith’s sorter machines classified and counted the data for the 1890 U.S. census in three months (different sources give varying times). It took almost ten years to comply the hand-written information from the 1880 census.
Ashurst, F. Gareth. Pioneers of computing. London: Frederick Muller, 1983.
Austrian, Geoffrey D. Herman Hollerith: forgotten giant of information processing. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
Bowes, Mary M. “The spirit of Jefferson wine-growing, the Adlum letters.” in Jefferson and wine. The Plains, Va: Vinifera Wine Growers Association, c1989, p. 121-131.
Bruno, Leonard C. Science & technology firsts. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997.
Gahn, Bessie Wilmarth. “Major John Adlum of Rock Creek.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C., vol. 39, 1938, p. 127-139.
Hannickel, Erica. “A fortune in fruit: Nicholas Longworth and grape speculation in Antebellum Ohio.” American Studies, vol. 51, no. 1/2, Spring/Summer 2010, p. 89-108.
Pinney, Thomas. A history of wine in America: from the beginnings to prohibition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
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3 comments

  1. Very interesting connections. I lived up around The (former) Vineyard for a few years and came across Adlum’s story. One publication noted that he grew the Orwigsburg grape, among others. “How many Orwigsburgs besides my home town (in PA) could there be?” thought I. Much more recently the local history comic in the Sunday Post (Only the finest sources for me!) informed us that Adlum had been a surveyor in PA. Wikipedia has him surveying the Schuylkill River, and Orwigsburg became the seat of Schuylkill County when it was created in 1811. So Adlum may have surveyed the new county boundaries or even the town of Orwigsburg. There is no viticulture there today, but the German settlers had apparently brought some slips from the old country. I imagine stumbling upon unknown feral grapevines, sagging with bunches of plump fruits and warmed by the late-summer sun. A pretty small part of the bigger story, but obviously quite fascinating to me!

    1. A History of The Gardens of the Ambassador's Residence, British Embassy, Washington · · Reply

      There is so much more to write about Adlum. He was born in York, Pennsylvania. After various army commissions, he took up surveying and made his money in that profession and – not surprisingly – in land speculation. He first retired to a farm near Havre de Grace, Maryland before settling in Washington. Almost a hundred years before it came into being, Adlum advocated the creation of the Agriculture Department. The Rare Book Division of the Library of Congress has James Madison’s copy of the Cultivation of the Vine. His friend and correspondent, Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, was sent two of the books as well as bottles of wine.
      You may know of his other daughter’s house in Northwest Washington – Dent House, on Springland Lane, still standing. I’ll work to get photographs of The Vineyard up as well as perhaps the two poems written in praise of the Catawba grape – by Longfellow and Browning!

  2. Kirsten and Bill Rhodes · · Reply

    Yes, indeed there is so much to learn here and we are trying to piece together family history. My husband’s mother is the great, great granddaughter of Margaret C. Adlum. Margaret C. Adlum was the daughter of John Adlum, who owned the Vineyard. Margaret married Cornelius Barber, purchased the property called Pretty Prospects, built a home there called North View, and had several children. John Adlum Barber, was one of their sons. One of his daughters, another Margaret Adlum Barber, married William Chatfield Looker, my mother-in law’s grandfather, and my husband’s great-grandfather. We were all drawn into the history of the family when we came to discover that the portrait above the fireplace in our family home is that of Margaret C. Adlum Barber, of North View and that our daughter bears a striking resemblance to this distant grandmother of generations ago. Fortunately, so many letters and photographs from these families were kept in tact in my husband’s family, as well as other pieces, naturally keeping us connected to the past. It is curious that we can feel such a physical connection to the lives of people who lived so long ago, but as I round the bend at Reno Road near Tilden where grapes once grew on the sunny slopes, the past pulls at me, and I long to know more. We would be happy to share what we know! I am curious to know about the Barbers – and especially to know more about Margaret Barber, and what she was like. Thank you.

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