Paper punch cards enjoyed a remarkably long tenure at the U.S. Census Bureau, from the 1890s through the 1960s. Hollerith's "statistical pianos," developed for the 1890 census, led to the creation of IBM.
With the latest U.S. census just getting under way, we thought we'd take a tour of population-counting technology from days gone by. This tabulating system was developed by Herman Hollerith for the Census Bureau and was first used in the 1890 census. Before that time, the bureau was struggling to complete a census by hand every 10 years.
Eventually, Hollerith's patents were bought by a business known as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Co. You may have heard of it by its later name: IBM.
Hollerith's tabulators, sometimes called "statistical pianos," were one of the first steps toward what we now think of as the information technology revolution. They were adopted by business for payroll and inventory records; punch cards were in use through the 1960s.
A Census Bureau employee uses a Hollerith Tabulator to calculate results from the 1904 census, with results displayed on dials. With his left hand, this fellow is operating a "pantograph" that can punch holes in cards. A card reading press is by his right hand.
One clever twist: Hollerith made sure that his paper cards were the same size as the dollar bills that existed at the time, so existing boxes and cabinets could be re-used.
Before the punch cards could be processed, Census Bureau employees had to transfer census answers from completed paper forms. This 1930s photograph shows the use of a machine called, sensibly enough, a "card puncher."
This photograph taken in 1935 shows punched cards being used to tabulate census data. They were used from the 1890s through the 1960s.
The typewritten caption says: "This machine is a mechanical sorter which is used by the United States Census Bureau in its tabulation system. The machine sorts cards automatically into different classifications as may be required. For instance, cards representing the workers of a certain section of the country will be run through this machine to show the number of carpenters, chauffers, mechanics, etc."
The Census Bureau called this an "Electronic Statistical Machine" and claimed that it would do as much tabulation in one year after the 1950 census as 500 people would working by hand for their entire lives. The sorter is in the right rear and the counting machine is in the left rear.
In this 1954 photograph, a Census Bureau employee is instructing members of the Machine Tabulation Division on sorting punch cards related to agriculture using an IBM 101 Electronic Statistical Machine.
Even in 1980, preparation of "Master Address Registers" by the Jeffersonville, Ind., office of the Census Bureau was done by hand. This showed census takers what housing areas they were assigned to visit.