David Lindsey Roberts at FastCompany: “The U.S. Constitution requires that a population count be conducted at the beginning of every decade.
This census has always been charged with political significance and continues to be. That’s clear from the controversy over the conduct of the upcoming 2020 census.
But it’s less widely known how important the census has been in developing the U.S. computer industry, a story that I tell in my new book, Republic of Numbers: Unexpected Stories of Mathematical Americans Through History....
The only use of the census clearly specified in the Constitution is to allocate seats in the House of Representatives. More populous states get more seats.
A minimalist interpretation of the census mission would require reporting only the overall population of each state. But the census has never confined itself to this.
A complicating factor emerged right at the beginning, with the Constitution’s distinction between “free persons” and “three-fifths of all other persons.” This was the Founding Fathers’ infamous mealy-mouthed compromise between those states with a large number of enslaved persons and those states where relatively few lived.
The first census, in 1790, also made nonconstitutionally mandated distinctions by age and sex. In subsequent decades, many other personal attributes were probed as well: occupational status, marital status, educational status, place of birth, and so on….
John Shaw Billings, a physician assigned to assist the Census Office with compiling health statistics, had closely observed the immense tabulation efforts required to deal with the raw data of 1880. He expressed his concerns to a young mechanical engineer assisting with the census, Herman Hollerith, a recent graduate of the Columbia School of Mines.
On September 23, 1884, the U.S. Patent Office recorded a submission from the 24-year-old Hollerith, titled “Art of Compiling Statistics.”
By progressively improving the ideas of this initial submission, Hollerith would decisively win an 1889 competition to improve the processing of the 1890 census.
The technological solutions devised by Hollerith involved a suite of mechanical and electrical devices….After his census success, Hollerith went into business selling this technology. The company he founded would, after he retired, become International Business Machines—IBM. IBM led the way in perfecting card technology for recording and tabulating large sets of data for a variety of purposes….(More)”