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With the 2010 U.S. Census underway, what follows is an interesting bit of history regarding a technological development that emerged as a result of the need to design a solution to speed up the tabulation process. But first a little background according to the introduction in the U.S. Census Office Manual for Field Operations:

“The U.S. Census is an official count of people living in the United States. The United States Constitution requires a census of population and housing be conducted every ten years. Because it happens every ten years, the U.S. Census is known as the decennial census. The first U.S. Census took place in 1790 and there has been a nationwide census every ten years since then. The 2010 Census will be the twenty-third census in our nation’s history.

“The primary reason for taking the census us to determine the number of seats each state is entitled to in the U.S. House of Representatives. For example, a heavily populated state like New York sends more members to the U.S. House of Representatives than a less populated state such as Delaware. However, U.S. Census results are also used by the federal government, local governments, and private industries for many of the following activities:

• Determining the distribution of federal and state funds
• Creating local districts for elections, schools, and utilities
• Determining where to locate new housing, businesses, and public institutions
• Examining the demographic characteristics of communities, cities, states, and our nation

“On Monday, August 2, 1790, slightly more than a year after George Washington became our first president, the United States began its first census. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was responsible for the 1790 Census. U.S. marshals supervised assistants appointed to collect the data. The assistants had no printed lists to guide them, provided their own supplies, and recorded data as best they could.

“It took 18 months to complete the first count, which provided a final tally of roughly 3,900,000 people in the original thirteen states and the districts of Kentucky, Maine, Vermont, and the Southwest Territory (Tennessee). This number was smaller than expected. After discussion between President Washington and his cabinet secretaries, the count was accepted as the first population count for our nation.

“As our nation grew, so did our need for information to help plan for growth. The decennial census process proved to be the ideal source of that information. In 1810, questions about manufacturing were included. In later decades, questions about agriculture, mining, business, housing, and transportation were added to the census questionnaires.

“During the 1800s, the population of the United States exploded from both large numbers of people immigrating and increased births within the United States. Growth of cities and many people moving ‘out West’ added to the challenges of taking a decennial census. Along with the nation, the census itself was changing.

“The act authorizing the 1880 Census also replaced U.S. marshals with a specially appointed staff of enumerators and supervisors. Special Agents were hired to collect statistics on certain industries and other topics. Detailed data were collected, but tabulation slowed down the census process. Tabulation of the 1880 data was complete only months before the 1890 Census began.

“In 1889, Herman Hollerith, one of the Special Agents hired in 1881 to tally census figures, found a solution to improve the tabulation process by designing a mechanical tabulator. Stacks of punch cards containing the data were fed into tabulating machines. Hollerith’s system was ready just in time for the 1890 Census. It produced the results of the 1890 Census much faster. Hollerith’s system was a success. He later founded a company to market his invention. In 1924, the company was renamed International Business Machines (IBM).”

And the rest is history…

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