How the US census led to the first data processing company 125 years ago

This electromechanical machine, used in the 1890 U.S. census, was the first automated data processing system.

Enlarge / This electromechanical machine, used in the 1890 U.S. census, was the first automated data processing system. (credit: Michael Hicks (CC BY 2.0))

The US 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 controversies in the run-up to the 2020 census.

But it’s less widely known how important the census has been in developing the US computer industry, a story that I tell in my book, Republic of Numbers: Unexpected Stories of Mathematical Americans through History. That history includes the founding of the first automated data processing company, the Tabulating Machine Company, 125 years ago on December 3, 1896.

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