The Census of 1900

By Dr F. H. Wines, Assistant Director of the Census

Originally printed in National Geographic, Jan 1900, Pages 34-36

Part of the Punched Card Collection

The census impresses the imagination of the American people as something vast and mysterious simply because of the magnitude of the numbers with which it deals and the extent of the territory which it covers. The elements that go to make up a census are very few and very simple. The whole subject divides itself into two parts, collection of data and handling of data collected.

The census act prescribes what inquiries should be undertaken and, in large part, what questions shall be asked. These questions are asked of every individual, of every owner of a farm, and of every manufacturer in the United States, all of whom are required to answer under penalty of law, and are liable to prosecution if false answers are given. For this purpose a small army of investigators is essential, numbering in the aggregate fifty thousand people. The country is divided into three hundred districts, each of which is put under the control of a supervisor, and for each subdivision an enumerator is appointed, who is expected to make a return for from 2,000 to 4,000 of population. The statistics of manufacturers are severally collected by special agents. The enumerators are all required to complete their work in thirty days from June 1, 1900, while more time is given to collectors of statistics of manufacturers. All these facts are reported on schedules, which constitute what may be called the raw material with which the Census Office has to deal.

Second, the Census Office itself may be regarded as a great manufacturing establishment in which this raw material is collected into printed books. Referring only to the population, it may be said that this conversion involves four distinct processes. In the first of these the facts recorded on the schedules are transferred to cards, one card for every individual enumerated, in which holes are punched according to various possible answers to questions contained in the schedule. There are on each card two hundred and forty distinct positions which any particular hole may occupy. The position the hole shows its significance. The second process is that in which these cards are counted by electricity. The electrical counting machine used in the last census is the invention of Herman Hollerith. It is so contrived that needles passing through the punched holes on each card form electrical connections which operate clock-faced dials, showing numbers corresponding to each individual fact or combination of facts. The third process consists in entering the number on result slips and combining them in tabular form as copy for the printer. The final process is the setting-up of the type and the preparation of the stereotyped plates for the press.

All this is very simple in theory and in practice, but it involves an enormous amount of work. The work done in the last census was equivalent to between 6,000 and 7,000 years for one man. The weight of the cards used was 200 tons, and of the schedules returned by the enumerators 150 tons. There is not a day during the continuation of the census work in which it is not necessary to handle four or five tons of paper, while the number of clerks and other employees in the office is about 3,000. To organize and govern a force like this, for the most part untrained and collected almost at hazard from the general population, requires far more than ordinary intellectual and executive ability. The census act directs that this immense undertaking shall be completed in its main outlines by the 1st of July, 1902, or a little more than two years from the taking of the census. It may be doubted whether Congress knew what is implied in this requirement, but the Director and his assistants are determined to comply with it if possible. In order so to do certain conditions are essential, namely, a sufficient number of clerks, competent clerks, a proper house in which to carry on the work, and non-interference on the part of Senators and Congressmen with the government and discipline of the office. A building in which each of the above processes will be conducted in a single room on the ground floor, lighted by skylights in the roof, has been constructed in a convenient location for the especial use of the Census.