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Did the census lead to IBM?

The census is an important means of getting a complete picture of the population, but its importance to the development of the computer industry seems less well known.
The history, recounted by David Roberts, an American historian of science, in his book Republic of Numbers: The Unexpected Story of American Mathematics through History, includes the founding of the Tabulating Machine Company, the first automated data processing company, on December 3, 1896.
Population growth forces changes in working patterns
If the census counted only the number of people, it would be fairly simple — just report the total number of people in each place. But America’s census is anything but simple.
We can trace the story back to the three-fifths compromise at the constitutional Convention of 1787, when the North and south agreed to multiply the actual population of slaves by three-fifths as a representative use for the apportionment of taxes and apportionment of members of the US House of Representatives.
The first U.S. census, in 1790, also divided by age and sex. In the decades that followed, personal information such as job status, marital status, education and place of birth became part of the census.
As the country develops, each census requires more effort than the last, not only to collect the data but also to compile it into a usable form.
Data processing for the 1880 census of the United States was not completed until 1888. By then, it had become mind-numbingly boring and error-prone paperwork.
Given that the population would continue to grow rapidly, those professionals with enough imagination could foresee the daunting task of processing data from the US 1890 census if procedures were not changed.
Hollerith’s masterpiece
Jo Billings, a doctor assigned to help the Census office compile health statistics, got a close-up look at the massive tabulation the task force did as it processed the raw data going back to 1880. He shared his concerns with Hermann Hollerith, another mechanical engineer helping with the census.
On September 23, 1884, the U.S. Patent Office recorded a submission by Hollerith, 24, entitled “The Art of Compiling Statistics.”
After this, Hollerith continued to refine the design idea, and in 1889 finalized a plan to simplify the data processing of the 1890 census.
Hollerith’s masterpiece is the punch tabulating machine, mainly composed of punch cards and card readers.
Punch cards are made of thin sheet paper and can be punched either by hand or by machine. The cards are fed into a reader connected to a counting device, which probes the card with a needle. Only when there are holes in the card does the needle pass through the card to make an electrical connection and advance the corresponding counter one scale to count.
For example, if a “white male farmer” card is passed through the reader, the counters in each of the three categories of “white”, “male” and “farmer” move forward one scale.
Hollerith’s perforated tabulating machines were so efficient that the state population data on which the United States Congress appropriated funds had been certified by late November 1890.
From punch tabulating machines to modern computers
After a successful census, Hollerith began selling his work.
Hollerith founded the tabulating machine company at the beginning of the article. After he retired, Thomas Watson took the helm and renamed the company International Business Machines, also known as IBM, in 1924.
Since then, IBM has continued to improve the card technology, creating an 80-column punched card that can more efficiently record and tabulate huge amounts of data.
By the 1930s, many businesses were using punch card technology to record and keep programs, such as payroll and inventory. Some scientists, especially astronomers, who had to deal with large amounts of data, also found them useful, and IBM’s 80-column punch cards became the industry standard.
Not satisfied, IBM developed a key puncher that would be widely used for decades to come.
“Punching in” became a branch of the computer industry that flourished after the second world war, and IBM became the world’s third largest company. Card processing provides the framework for faster and more space-efficient purely electronic computers.
It may not be clear to people that in the room-size computers of the 1950s and 1960s, the main way to load data and instructions was to create a deck of cards on a keying punch and feed them into a card reader. This was the default program on many computers until the 1980s.
As computer pioneer Grace Hopper recalled of her early career: “In those days, everyone was using punch cards, and they thought they would use them forever.”
Hopper’s team created the first commercially available general-purpose computer and the punched card-reading behemoth, the Universal Automatic Computer (UNIVAC).
In 1951, the first UNIVAC was delivered to the U.S. Census Bureau.

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