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Digital Retro: IBM & the “statistical pianos” of 1890

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Photograph of Hollerith tabulation machine from Smithsonian

Photograph of Hollerith tabulation machine from the Smithsonian Institution. Gift of International Business Machines Corporation.

Heads up genealogists! Here’s a story about technology, for you and anyone who’s ever poured over old census schedules and felt transported back back in time.

It’s a story that brings together two unlikely partners in history: the American decennial census and one of the world’s largest tech companies (and RTP heavyweight), the International Business Machines Corporation–better known as IBM.

The setting was Washington, DC, the year 1890. It was the 100th anniversary of the national decennial census. For all ten prior censuses, hand-written schedules were sent in from across the country to be methodically hand-tabulated by massive crews of temporary census workers. By 1880, the project had grown so large that it took over seven years to calculate and report the census returns. It was an endeavour of monumental proportions, taxing the resources and organizational capacity of the federal government.

Cover of August 30, 1890 Scientific American, featuring seven illustrated vignettes of the Hollerith Electric Tabulating System

The Hollerith Electric Tabulating System, pictured on an 1890 cover of Scientific American revolutionized the American Census in 1890–and was a precursor to IBM, the International Business Machines Coporation. Read the Scientific American issue in full at the Internet Archive. 

To add to the difficulties, the 1890 Census was the third since the Civil War, preceded by two censuses mired in controversy and widely believed to have undercounted the American population. The 1890 Census Office was under intense pressure to return accurate numbers reflecting the growth and demographic health of the American people. A more efficient process for processing census data was clearly needed.

Enter Herman Hollerith, former MIT professor and recent inventor of the Hollerith Electric Tabulating System, a series of machines that used punch cards to record and calculate numerical information. Census workers would transfer the hand-written returns into machine-readable data by punching information (age, sex, race, place of birth, etc.) into dollar-bill-sized cards. These cards were then fed into an electric tabulator machine that counted and sorted the cards into boxes based on certain criteria–for example, an operator could set the tabulator to sort out all the cards of women over age 50 living in Raleigh. Operators could thus “query” the machine by running the cards through it over and over.

The machine was a success, cutting the census processing time down from over seven years to under two. Reports ran across the country called it a statistical revolution, nicknaming the tabulator a “statistical piano.” Newspapers published articles celebrating the scale and complexity of the census and praising the modernizing impact of Mr. Hollerith’s “electrical machines.” Mention of the new technology even appears in a February 1890 edition of Carolina Watchman:

The machinery for taking the census is centred in Washington, and is exceedingly complex in character. . . . the horde of facts which must be sorted in orderly array, gives some hint of the vast expanse and comprehensive nature of this the centennial census. In the performance of the necessary work there will be consumed tons upon tons of paper. . . . Tons of cardboard also will be consumed for classification and counting, a work, by the way, which is to be performed by electrical machines, the invention of Mr. Hollerith. (Carolina Watchman, 2/20/1890)

By today’s standards, Hollerith’s invention may seem archaic, but many historians cite this as the beginning of modern automatic computation and the birth of IBM. In 1911, Hollerith’s company, the Tabulating Machine Company, merged with the International Time Recording Company, the Computing Scale Company of America, and possibly the Bundy Manufacturing Company (accounts differ) to form the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, renamed to IBM in 1924. Next time you’re hunting through census records to find your ancestor’s name, think of these humble machines that sparked a technical revolution and consider how we might look back on today’s digital wonders 100, 50, or even 10 years from now.

Much of my work here at the State Library focuses on digital preservation and education about technological obsolescence–the process by which cutting-edge new technology becomes inaccessibly old technology. There’s nothing I love more than finding unexpected connections between historical materials, modern technology, and government documents.


Other resources you mind helpful:

GHL Blog
All posts about the census
“A trip down Memorex lane”

State Archives Circulars
Circular 2: Overview of North Carolina Census Records, 1787-1930

NC Digital Collections
Census data

GHL Books
Margo Anderson, American Census : A Social History (1988)
Carroll D. Wright, The History and Growth of the U.S. Census, Prepared for the Senate Committee on the Census (1900) also available from the Internet Archive
D. S. Halacy, Census: 190 Years of County America (1980)
Frederick G. Bohme, 200 Years of U.S. Census Taking: Population and Housing Questions, 1790-1990 (1989)

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