High Tech in the '90s - The 1890 Census

A version of this article first appeared in the March/April 2000 issue of Ancestry Magazine

By Mark Howells

Technology has not always meant silicon chips and putty-colored plastic machines. There was a time in the nineteenth century when the flood of immigration and industrial expansion created a need for advancements in what became known as data processing. This need was met by the new high technology of the day consisting of wooden cabinetry, electric dials, and perforated paper cards. It was the Eleventh Census of the United States the "lost" census of 1890 bemoaned by researchers which was the stimulus for this high technology. The 1890 census and the machines invented to aggregate its results were the beginnings of modern information technology as we know it.

As genealogists, we focus on the individual census schedules as primary sources of family history information. Our use of these resources is quite incidental to the original purpose for which the United States census is taken. The apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives is the primary purpose of the U.S. census. Today, the government also uses the numbers from our modern censuses to allocate over $185 billion dollars in Federal spending. The actual reasons behind the census are often forgotten by the family historian seeking their ancestors. This article will describe how the need to count the nation efficiently in 1890 was a foundation stone for modern computer technology. We will further review the loss of the original returns of that same census the first to be counted through the use of machines.

Counting the Nation

The tabulation of the 1880 census had taken eight years to complete. Full numerical reporting of the Tenth Census of the United States was not available until 1888. The United States had opened its gates to millions of immigrants during this period and the slow process of manually tabulating the census could not long be tolerated. The growing nation needed the answers which only the census could provide on its population, manufactures, agriculture, and other questions sooner than the eight year wait which the Tenth Census had required. By 1888, with only two years remaining until the process was to start all over again, it was clear that something had to be done.

Herman Hollerith, the son of German immigrants, was a mechanical genius in an inventive age. Working on the manually-tallied 1880 census at the age of 19, Hollerith quickly brought his mind to bear on the enormous task of adding up the millions of census returns. In his travels by railroad (he had previously invented improvements for train braking systems), he had observed the use of what was called a "punch photograph". Conductors would punch notches in the edges a passenger's ticket which physically described the passenger to allow only the described passenger to use that particular ticket. A passenger's height, hair color, build, eye color, etc. could all be coded onto such a ticket by punching the indicated places around the edges of the ticket. Hollerith envisioned a system by which the returns from the 1890 census could be punched onto paper cards similar to a "punch photograph". If he could then automate the process for counting the punched cards, the census might be tallied in a far shorter time than that of 1880.

Hollerith's System

Herman Hollerith didn't just invent a few machines to automate the census counting process, he developed an entire integrated system. Multiple machines, data recording devices, and processes were combined by Hollerith into a single solution for automating the enumeration. After some demonstration projects for local health authorities (who also tabulate large amounts of data for life expectancies, etc.), Hollerith won the contract to supply his system for the Eleventh Census of the United States.

A pantograph punch would be used to punch the information onto the card. A pantograph operator would guide one end of a lever over a board showing the categories of information from the census (age, sex, place of birth, etc.) and would depress the human-readable end of the lever. The pantograph would simultaneously make the appropriate punch into a card. This would make the information from the census machine-readable as we call it today. Each card was punched individually. The frugal Hollerith made his cards the same size of the "horse blanket" dollar bills of the day in order to take advantage of pre-existing cabinetry and other office equipment used by banks for handling money. The cards invented by Hollerith for this purpose in the 1880s were still in use by the data processing industry into the 1970s.

A replica of a punch card from the 1900 census.

A replica of a punch card from the 1900 census.
(The 1890 census cards were blank in order to save the cost of printing)

After the cards had been punched, they were individually inserted into the press of Hollerith's tabulator machine. The press had yielding pins which, when they met the unpunched surface of the card, telescoped upwards. Where the pins were pressed through the holes, they connected with individual cups of mercury under the press and completed an electrical circuit. The electric circuit incremented a mechanical counter in the upper portion of the tabulator each time a hole in the card was detected by the pins.

Hollerith Tabulator and Sorter

Hollerith Tabulator and Sorter
Showing details of the mechanical counter and the tabulator press.

To complete the process, Hollerith included an automatically-activated sorting box attached to the tabulator. When the tabulator recorded a card with a particular characteristic, the lid of an associated sorting box compartment opened up. The operator of the tabulator placed the just tabulated card into the correct box compartment for further sorting. In this manner, additional tabulations such as "all persons living in Pennsylvania who are also steel workers" could be counted by running them through the tabulator again.

Hollerith Pantograph, Tabulator, and Sorter

Hollerith Pantograph, Tabulator, and Sorter
The pantograph is resting on the left hand side of the tabulator desk. The tabulator's press is to the right.
The sorter box is shown open for the removal of categorized cards.

Hollerith's tabulators had to be rewired each time a different set of characteristics were called for to be tabulated. This was the equivalent of re-programming the machines. For the 1890 census, Hollerith and an assistant soldered all of these wiring changes themselves.

Hollerith's tabulators were often called "statistical pianos" due to their similar appearance to upright pianos. As the Census Office used these "statistical pianos" for the 1890 census, it was found that female operators generated a greater rate of throughput with fewer errors than their male counterparts. The 1890 census count was an early opportunity for women to excel in the workforce, albeit on a temporary basis until the census count was completed.

Using Hollerith's system, the rough population count of over 62 million individuals from the 1890 census returns was completed within six weeks. Completed statistical reviews from the 1890 data were fully published by 1892. Hollerith's system had shaved years of effort off of the process and saved the US taxpayer approximately $5 million in comparison to the 1880 census. At peak production, the Hollerith system in use by the Census Office had been processing census returns equal in height to the Washington Monument on a daily basis.

Scientific American magazine cover from 1890.

Scientific American magazine cover from 1890.
Showing work in the Census Office using Hollerith's system.
Notice the female clerk seated at the "statistical piano".

Herman Hollerith went on to win contracts abroad for census tabulation from Czarist Russia and the United Kingdom among others. The Hollerith system not only found a market in other corners of the world but was rapidly applied to other applications. Once the railroad companies (the most complex business organizations of the day) introduced his system into their accounting departments, Hollerith's success was assured. The company which he founded eventually became International Business Machines which dominated the data processing industry until the 1980s. The Personal Computer on your desk right now can trace its pedigree from IBM's personal computer development efforts in the early 1980s all the way back to Herman Hollerith's automation of the 1890 census.

The Lost Census

One of the things that you learn early on in U.S. genealogical research is that the 1890 census is not available. Usually beginners are told that it was lost in a fire. The individual census schedules from the 1890 which might have been microfilmed to the advantage of all family historians are a gaping hole in our research. The 1890 census was taken at a time of huge immigration to this country and it would have been one of the first Federal records a newly arrived immigrant would appear on after getting off the boat.

While working around the 1890 census gap using alternative sources such as state censuses and the special enumeration of Union Veterans and Widows which survived for some states, researchers may wonder what actually caused the loss of such an important research source? Arson? Accident? Neglect? Why did the 1890 census survive only in fragments containing a meager 6,000 individuals out of the original count of over 62 million?

The answer to this question has been thoroughly researched and presented by Kellee Blake in her article "First In the Path of the Fireman The Fate of the 1890 Population Census" which appeared in the Spring, 1996 edition of Prologue: The Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration. This article will only summarize the essential points regarding the loss of the 1890 census.

In March of 1896, the special schedules for the 1890 census which included those for mortality, poverty, and handicap status were damaged by a fire and their remains were destroyed by order of the Department of the Interior. By 1921, the original and only copies of the 1890 census population schedules were stored in an unlocked file room in the basement of the Commerce Building, resting on pine wood shelving. A fire of unknown origin broke out in the basement on the evening of January 10th. The Washington D.C. fire department contained the fire to the basement of the building with at least twenty fire hoses pouring water into the basement. In the aftermath of the fire, the Census Director estimated that 25% of the 1890 schedules had been destroyed and 50% were damaged by water, smoke, or fire. Note that this estimate would suggest that 75% of the 1890 schedules survived the fire itself in either damaged or untouched condition.

By the end of January 1921, the remains of the 1890 schedules were moved out of the basement of the Commerce Building and into temporary storage. The condition of their storage at the Commerce Building had helped to strengthen calls for a permanent National Archives to be built. Between 1921 and 1932, the history of these remnants is difficult to determine. It appears that no salvage or restoration efforts occurred. In December of 1932, the Chief Clerk of the Bureau of the Census sent the Librarian of Congress a list of papers to be destroyed. This was standard Federal record keeping procedure at the time. This list included the original 1890 census schedules! The Librarian was asked by the Bureau to identify any records which should be retained for historical purposes but the Librarian did not note any records on the list worthy of saving. Congress authorized destruction of that list of records on February 21, 1933 and thus the 1890 census remains were destroyed by government order by 1934 or 1935.

The 1890 census, whose enumeration was such a technical triumph of its day, was first damaged by fire and water then finally destroyed through neglect and indifference. The Hollerith system used to tabulate that census set the standard for modern and efficient statistical enumeration for decades to come. The research gap caused by the destruction of the original 1890 census schedules will plague family historians forever.

All illustrations appear courtesy of the IBM Archives.


Austrian, Geoffrey D. Herman Hollerith: Forgotten Giant of Information Processing. New York. Columbia University Press, 1982.

Blake, Kellee "First in the Path of the Firemen The Fate of the 1890 Population Census", Prologue (online edition). Spring 1996 Vol. 28 No. 1 http://www.nara.gov/publications/prologue/1890cen1.html

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High Tech in the '90s - The 1890 Census
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Updated June 6, 2001

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