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U.S. Census Bureau

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U.S. Census Bureau

Hollerith’s machine from his 1887 patent.
Hollerith’s machine from his 1887 patent.

In August 2010, the United States reached the latest end of the census process. Every 10 years, the United States — as mandated by the constitution — undertakes to enumerate its population. The current census will be controversial because of its political importance (it is used to determine congressional representation) and because the size and complexity of the U.S. population requires statistical techniques that could potentially be manipulated. One thing, however, is certain: the U.S. Census Bureau will use the latest technology to collect and process the data, as they have in the past.

For the 1950 census, the Bureau supported the development of UNIVAC, and accepted delivery of the UNIVAC I on 31 March 1951. It was formally dedicated and put into service on 14 June of that year, and many historians of technology consider that the birth of non-military computing. However, perhaps the most important contribution of the technologists who worked for or were funded by Bureau to enhancing technology for humanity, occurred exactly 120 years ago this month.

By 1870, the U.S. population had grown so large that clerks were not able to process the data by hand. The Bureau began to experiment with a number of mechanical devices to automate the process. For the 1880 census, an engineer named Henry Hollerith had served on the technical team and felt that he could improve the process. In 1884, he filed a patent for an electromechanical device that could rapidly read information that had been encoded by punching holes on a paper tape or set of cards. This and two subsequent patents for producing and sorting the cards all issued in 1889. Having incorporated in 1887, Hollerith’s Tabulating Machine Company was chosen through a competition in 1889 to process the census of 1890. The project was a huge success and, on 16 August 1890, the total population of the United States was announced to be 62,622,250 (the number in 2000 was 281,421,906, and we are of course waiting for the 2010 results).

However, the monopoly of Hollerith on this new sort of data processing enabled him to charge a premium for the use of his equipment. This situation led the Census Bureau to develop its own punch-card equipment (based on Hollerith’s ideas) and to a number of patent battles which Hollerith ultimately lost, leading in turn to the founding of more competitors. In response, in 1911 Hollerith merged his company with several others into a firm that eventually became International Business Machines. IBM continued to lead the market, experimenting with various technologies to improve card processing. Its forays into electronic counting led it to enter and, for a long time, dominate the new and growing electronic computer market. For many years, punched cards were the main method of computer input.

The impact of punched card equipment on data processing, as well as its role in the subsequent development of electronic computing, have led IEEE to designate this technology in its STARS program (Significant Technological Achievement Recognition Selections — an online compendium of invited, peer-reviewed articles on the history of major developments in electrical and computer science and technology).