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Computers have an unlikely origin story: the 1890 census

FastCompany – David Lindsay Roberts – “The inventor of punched cards, which led to the first computers and companies like IBM, was aiming to solve a gnarly problem at the time: data collection for the census…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.

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. The first crucial innovation was to translate data on handwritten census tally sheets to patterns of holes punched in cards. As Hollerith phrased it, in the 1889 revision of his patent application, “A hole is thus punched corresponding to person, then a hole according as person is a male or female, another recording whether native or foreign born, another either white or colored, &c.”…

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