The Great Enumeration

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By the 1940’s the punch-card system could no longer meet the demands of government agencies, large and small businesses, and the scholarly community: it was too slow. But a new electronic computer developed for the army suggested that a general-purpose digital computer might be designed to serve the needs of the Bureau of the Census by taking a problem, storing instructions, making lightningfast calculations, and printing out the answers.

After long and careful study by the National Bureau of Standards and a select scientific committee, the project was approved, a contract let, and a computer, with the trademark name UNIVAC I, was delivered in the spring of 1951. “These were wild times,” Ann Herbert Scott wrote in Census U.S.A. (1968), “when a small number of ‘computer-happy’ census staff worked night and day to master the new equipment.” For fourteen months UNIVACI was in continuous operation, twenty-four hours a day over a seven-day week, tabulating the data from the 1950 census. UNIVAC I was honorably retired in 1963 and some of its components may be seen in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of History and Technology in Washington, but the bureau continues to rely upon new generations of ever-faster computers to do its awesome work.

While the early generations of computers attained dazzling internal speeds, they were handicapped by the need for faster devices to feed information into the machines and for faster ways to get the printed results out of the other end. These pressures in the late 1950's, with the 1960 census approaching, led to the development of a process with a folksy name, FOSDIC, which stands for Film Optical Sensing Device for Input to Computers. FOSDIC transferred data directly from microfilm to magnetic tape to be fed into the computer, and new high-speed printers spit it out for reading. In tabulating the 1960 census, the new system counted almost 180,000,000 people in a little more than three months, the findings occupying more than 200,000 printed pages. Manual copying, coding, and key punching were eliminated, along with their potential for such errors as were uncovered in the 1950 Census of Population. (Some years later two Princeton University professors had come upon a puzzling table in an obscure section of the tabulations. It showed that there were 565 fourteen-year-old widows, and 184 precocious Indian widowers and divorcés in the Northeast at the tender age of fourteen to twenty-four years. The explanation: a UNIVAC key-punch operator had hit the wrong key, a mistake known as “off-punching.”)

The use of computer technology in the late sixties sharpened public concern over possible invasion of privacy. In a court contest, United States v. Rickenbacker , the argument was put forward that detailed questioning about housing was in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The district court decided in favor of the government, the court of appeals sustained the decision, and the Supreme Court declined to review. Thus it was judicially determined that the gathering of household statistics was a legitimate function of modern government. (One housing question not asked in 1960 was whether the house had a kitchen sink. Living standards had risen to the point that the question was no longer considered necessary.)

During the 1960 count the Bureau of the Census made new experiments with the householders themselves completing the schedules. Results this time were so promising that the procedure was greatly extended in the next count. The chief reliance remained, however, on the door-to-door interviewers, the foot-slogging infantry of census work.

The Census Bureau started to plan for the ninteenth and most recent decennial census (1970) before the work on the eighteenth was completed. The challenge consisted of trying to find and count, as perfectly as human error will allow, the total of the inhabitants of the fifty states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the Canal Zone, the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands—every area of U.S. sovereignty or jurisdiction. Twenty-one pretests and dress rehearsals were held, measuring the effectiveness of questionnaire formats, the mailout/mail-back system of coverage, including the resolution of tough ethnic language problems, follow-up training for enumerators when there was no response to the mail-in form, the logistics of deploying temporary fieldworkers, the printing of millions of printed forms, and the organizing of a massive campaign of public information. At bureau headquarters in Suitland, Maryland, the run-through of FOSDIC-readable schedules on the latest model of the electronic magician demonstrated that FOSDIC could handle four hundred questionnaires a minute for feeding tape into the high-speed computer that then printed them out as statistical tables—good news for government at all levels, for private industry, for marketing experts and academics.

The bureau invited suggestions for questions from users of census material everywhere. Many proposals were rejected, among them questions on religion, union membership, the amount of taxes paid, smoking, child spacing, household pets, and Social Security. With all in readiness, on March 26,1970, President Richard Nixon issued a proclamation that the census would be taken beginning on April 1, and that “Every American can be sure that there will be no improper use of the information given. …”