How New York’s Census Will Be Taken

Oh, you census takers in 2010. You have it so easy. Back in 1910, you had to go door to door asking people to fill out 30 questions, and you earned 2½ cents for each completed census. You might make 4 or 5 dollars in a day.

But once you turned in the census forms, that’s when the cool part happened. They didn’t have computers as we know them today, but they did have machines that helped tabulate the answers. From the article:

This year the work will be greatly facilitated by a very remarkable machine. It is expected that this machine will not only reduce very greatly the amount of labor required in the classification of 20,000,000 people, but it will reduce the costs so materially that the present census will not cost more than that of ten years ago, when there were not so many people to count.

Mechanical devices have been in use in the Census Office ever since 1870, but the new machine will cause almost a revolution in the methods of work. It is built on the plan of a typewriter with 240 keys. The operator, with a schedule before him, depresses the desired keys and the holes are punched by electric power in cards in the proper places. One such machine controled by a clerk can punch holes in 3,000 cards a day. There are 300 of the machines in the Census Office at Washington, all oiled up and ready to work, and the 90,000,000 cards to be punched have been ordered.

After the cards are punched they are fed into an electric tabulating machine with a “pin box” attachment which permits the required pins to pass through the holes in the cards, establishing in this way an electric circuit and resulting in the tabulation of the items on counters which register their results in printing on spooled paper somewhat like a stock ticker. One hundred of these machines will be used. After comparisons to prove accuracy the schedules will be put away to be preserved in the vaults of the Census Bureau. These cards do not contain the names of the persons to whom they refer and therefore all personal identity is eliminated.

Check out the pdf for more details. As a bonus, the pdf also includes an irrelevant sidebar column about how awful puns are, and the best way to deal with a person who insists on using them.

HOW NEW YORK’S CENSUS WILL BE TAKEN: Albert Falck Tells of His Task of Taking the Census in Biggest City in America (PDF)

From March 27, 1910

3 responses to “How New York’s Census Will Be Taken”

  1. Amazing stuff. Even cooler lightbox! Although, if your screen is too small, the “zoom” actually makes the images smaller!


  2. But, with those 5 dollars, you could have bought 27lb of beef… Which takes its present value up to a couple of hundred dollars. I think it’s all right for census taking.
    Great blog, congrats.


  3. The census was the original customer for those tabulating machines. The 1870 census was so far behind that they realized it could no longer be done by hand so they put out a contract for a better way of doing all the adding and tabulating. Herman Hollerith developed the first punch card tabulating machines in response, and they were widely adopted. His company later became IBM, so they are still in the tabulating machine business.

    That reminds me though. When was the last time someone wanted to show a computer in a movie and used a punch card sorter or a tape drive? Would modern audiences even realize what they were seeing?


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