The ongoing 2020 U.S. Census is historic: It’s the first U.S. census to be conducted primarily online, with citizens encouraged to visit my2020census.gov to be counted. Although the bureau conducted some online test counts during the 2000 census, it passed on an internet-based system in 2010.

It’s hardly the first tech innovation for the census. In August 1890, the bureau recorded a population of more than 62 million that had been counted using automation—a giant tech leap forward. Following the 1880 census, the bureau had realized it had too much data on its hands and needed a more efficient means of tabulation.

The bureau announced a contest—essentially, an old-time hack-a-thon—in 1888. Contestants were asked to process and tabulate 1880 census data from St. Louis, Missouri. The prize: a contract for the 1890 census.

The initiative attracted three contestants, with the first two completing the data processing in 144.5 and 100.5 hours, respectively. But the third—former census employee Herman Hollerith—completed the work in 72.5 hours. Part two of the contest required contestants to tabulate the data by demographics such as age, race, and gender. Again, Hollerith smoked his competition, completing his tabulations in only 5.5 hours compared with 44.5 and 55.5 hours!

The secret to Hollerith’s success?

The Hollerith Census Machine, an electric tabulating machine that read holes on punch cards. Each time the machine finished reading a card, a bell rang, and a census employee transcribed the data as indicated on the machine’s dials.

Hollerith won the contest and completed the 1890 census in less than three years and $5 million under budget. Hollerith also conducted the 1900 census, and some iteration of his technology was used by the census bureau until the mid-1950s when it was replaced by computers. Sadly, most of Hollerith’s work from the 1890 census was destroyed in a 1921 fire.

The deadline to reply to the 2020 census is Sept. 30.

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Photo: Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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