Information Technology to Rescue Census Again

A recent article on the technology blog Engadget reports that the 2020 census will probably take greater advantage of the Internet rather than mailing out census forms printed on paper. The article says it’s only natural since so much of the rest of our world is forgoing “snail mail” and going to Internet-based data collection. The article says that the 2010 census cost $95 per household to process. The cost savings of using Internet should be substantial.

However this is not the first time that information technology has come to the rescue of the US Census Bureau. The census is a vital part of our government because census data is used to draw congressional districts and to allocate federal funds to various areas based on population in addition to all the other useful information it provides for city and state planners and policymakers at all levels of government.

When the country was going at a huge rate in the late 1800s the census was also vital because the population was shifting so rapidly with tens of thousands of immigrants coming in all the time and people moving to different parts of the country as we expanded westward. However the task of taking the census and tabulating the data by hand was overwhelming. It took a full eight years to tabulate the 1880 census and estimates were that the 1890 census could take as long as 11 years to tabulate. Of course by then we would already be a year overdue for the 1900 census.

The census however was rescued by Herman Hollerith. He worked for the Census Bureau and came up with an idea of using pieces of cardboard with holes punched in strategic locations to represent data. He’d gotten the idea by seeing a device called a jacquard loom. The jacquard loom would weave intricate patterns of lace and other woven materials by using a set of punched cards. Metal pins would either drop into the holes or be blocked by the absence of a hole to determine which threads should be raised or lowered as the material was woven. He concluded that we could punch holes in cards to represent different bits of data and that a machine could be built to tabulate those results electronically. Metal contacts would either drop through the holes or be blocked by the absence of a hole in it would trigger an electric counter. He designed the cards to be the size of dollar bills at that time since there were already pieces of equipment available to handle slips of paper that size.

The end result was a tabulating machine that was used in the 1890 census to tabulate it in just one year instead of the predicted 11 years. He formed a company known as the “Tabulating Machine Company” which later merged with other firms to form the “Computing Tabulating Recording Company“. That company was later renamed in 1927 to be called “International Business Machines” more commonly known by the initials IBM.

Click on the name Herman Hollerith to read the Wikipedia article giving more details about the man and his inventions and how he revolutionized data collection by using the infamous punched cards. You don’t see punched cards anymore these days but in its day, it was information technology that rescued the census.