NOSE COUNT, 1960 (Apr, 1960)

I found this article incredibly interesting. It seems like the computer technology of 1960 was just barely up to the task of processing the census data. Not to mention the sheer human scale of the census operation. Check out some of the stats from the article:

On April first, 160,000 of these politically appointed door-to-door canvassers largely housewives, widows or part-time workers—will set out armed with 1,080,000 pencils, 260,000 pocket-type sharpeners, 2,850,000 scratch pads, infinite patience and considerable ingenuity

For comparison, here are articles about the 1940 and 1950 censuses (censi?).

Also here are some really nice ads for UNIVAC 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

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By Richard F. Dempewolff

THIS IS THE YEAR we count off again, take a look at ourselves to see how we’ve grown, where we’re heading and how we’re doing. Ever since 1790, when the Constitution authorized a “decennial enumeration of the population,” the Bureau of Census has had to brace itself each year ending with zero, and charge into the monumental task of inventorying American noses, one by one.

As such nose counts go, the first one was easy. A handful of census takers knocked at the doors of log cabins, tepees and prairie dugouts to smoke out a total of 3,929,214 people. Questions determined little more than their sex, age and whether they wer freedmen or slaves. But the population soared with each succeeding census. More and more agencies added questions to the census taker’s list to prod, poke and explore Mr. and Mrs. Average American, and see what made them tick.

For its 1960 population and housing census, the Bureau, now the granddaddy of all U.S. polling agencies, will face what probably will be the most staggering house-to-house canvass in history. Not only must it rap on more than 60 million doors to tally an estimated 180 million Americans (an increase of 30 million over 1950), but it must collect answers to some 60 questions designed to reveal trends in our living standards, social structure, family relationships, occupations and myriad other things.

To do the job, census experts have been busy building a complex array of brand new devices and systems. This year, for the first time, take-your-own-census forms will be mailed to every home in the country. In the sprawling corridors of the Department of Commerce Census Building in Suitland, Md., just outside the nation’s capital, rows of new electronic computers are warming up to gobble the billions of figures that soon will be pouring into them. Newest phenomenon is a complicated group of electronic cabinets and consoles reminiscent of the gear in a Cape Canaveral blockhouse. It is known as “FOSDIC” (Film Optical Sensing Device for Input to Computer). This monster will transfer all the data collected from you and me to magnetic tape—performing in an instant a job once tediously handled by 2000 punch-card operators.

Gigantic UNIVAC 1105’s will swallow the tape as fast as it is produced, digesting its magnetic pulses and spewing out masses of coded census figures on request. Fed through new high-speed electronic printers, UNIVAC’s taped “summary” codes will be magically transformed into readable statistical tables ready for the printer.

As a result of all this high-speed wizardry, population totals for counties will begin to make their appearance no more than two weeks after the census is completed in mid-April. By fall, official figures for all areas will be announced. And by December 1, 1960, final census figures will be presented to the President by the Secretary of Commerce. In spite of the increase in population, publication time for various phases of the new decennial census will be speeded up by six months to a year-and-a-half! The entire incredible report will fill 100,000 printed pages in a stack of volumes more than 10 feet high.

Regardless of all the new “gee whiz” census wonders, the good old census taker, or “enumerator,” must still make his rounds to check the do-it-yourself forms and code your answers on sheets for microfilming.

On April first, 160,000 of these politically appointed door-to-door canvassers—largely housewives, widows or part-time workers—will set out armed with 1,080,000 pencils, 260,000 pocket-type sharpeners, 2,850,000 scratch pads, infinite patience and considerable ingenuity. For two weeks they will explore every nook and cranny of the United States—including the new states of Alaska and Hawaii, as well as Guam, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Panama Canal Zone.

To make the job easier, the Bureau has divided the nation into 250,000 enumeration districts, so that each census taker will list facts about 1200 people, covering 350 to 400 dwellings. Months ago, in the Suitland map department, you could have watched cartographers sprawled in stocking feet on rug-size maps spread across the floors. They worked from an avalanche of up-to-the-minute city, town, county, highway, topographic, soil and aerial maps constantly pouring in from all over. Every change since the last census, no matter how small, went on the master charts—new homes, new streets and highways, old streets blocked off, old buildings condemned for demolition, changes in boundaries of towns and cities due to shifting rivers, new dams and exploding populations. When he sets out from one of 400 district offices operated by some 10,000 supervisors, each canvasser will carry with him a set of yard-square maps detailing every latest innovation in his territory.

But map or no map, there’s no blueprint for what the enumerators will find. They will knock politely for admittance to cardboard huts in hobo jungles, glittering penthouse apartments, mansions and row houses. They’ll call at homes converted from chicken shacks, old railroad cars, caverns, mine tunnels and barn lofts. They’ll visit traveling circuses, nudist camps and remote lighthouses.

To ferret out every possible citizen, these determined scouts will travel some 28 million miles, bouncing over lumber trails in jeeps, hiking up mountains and scaling cliffs to lonely fire towers. Some will skim across snow-covered Arctic tundra on dog sleds and snowmobiles to enumerate back-country Indians and trappers. They’ll row boats through dismal Florida swamps to tally the shy Seminoles. Some will be bitten by dogs, chased by bears, scratched by cats, or attacked — as one was last time — by a flock of turkey gobblers.

If history is any criterion, they’ll meet with a wild assortment of adventures.

During the last census, some enumerators found themselves rushing sick and injured children to the hospital, breaking up family quarrels, and—as happened in one case—notifying authorities of a freshly committed murder. One nose-counter arrived just in time to join a bucket brigade for a burning house he had come to enumerate. Another was refused admission to a nudist camp because he wouldn’t remove his clothes, and had to appoint a member nudist to do the job for him. More than one census taker has turned midwife when a new addition to a family arrived simultaneously with him.

For the most part, people are inclined to cooperate, but an interviewer never knows what he’s going to be up against. In the last national countdown, a lady compiler had to tight-rope-walk a wobbly log crossing a mountain stream to reach some cabins when the occupants wouldn’t come out. She fell in twice—once going and once coming. Even less hospitable was the grumpy prospector who invited a lady census taker to sit on a mound of earth nearby while asking questions. Things got pretty lively after about the second question when the ants swarmed out.

Many people will not stop what they’re doing to oblige the interviewer, but have no objection to answering questions on the run—such as the painter who bellowed his personal affairs to the whole neighborhood from the top of the ladder he wouldn’t descend. At another stop, an enumerator had to help a busy mother hang out the week’s wash during the questioning.

Actually, refusal to answer census questions can result in a $100 fine, or two months in jail. But once the enumerator explains that everything is confidential by law, and that even the Internal Revenue Department can’t check the family-income figures, few objectors hold out. There are some favorite “wrong answers” the enumerator must watch for, however.

“Wives like to upgrade their husbands,” explains one census official. “The mate of a trolley conductor or a locomotive driver may list him as an ‘engineer,’ for instance. And many women tend to round off their ages to the nearest zero below the truth.” For the coy one who says she is “over 21,” the census taker has a stock trick. “Very well,” he says, eyeing her, “I’ll put you in the 55-60 group.” That usually gets the accurate age in a hurry.

Most people recognize the importance of accurate reporting once the enumerator explains that representation in Congress, old-age benefits, government planning for roads, schools and hospitals, business planning for new outlets, industrial production and many other vital national functions depend on the integrity of individual reporting. It’s not unusual for a housewife to walk miles to a district office in order to correct her age, which she has falsified “because my husband was home when the census taker asked me, and I didn’t want him to know I am older than he is.” Or for a man to correct his income “because my wife doesn’t know about the other $2000.”

When the enumerator stops at your house in April, he will pick up the form you received in the mail and check the answers with you. These will be blocked out on a FOSDIC form in a special code arrangement of black squares. At every fourth home, he will leave another form with 45 questions. This is a “sampling” survey of housing, which recipients will fill in themselves and mail to the Bureau, detailing such things as education, occupation and marital status of every member of the household, the number of television sets, cars and so on. Averages struck from this spot check will provide census officials with an accurate picture of the standard of living and the direction it is taking.

Most enumerators will wind up their rugged tour in 10 days, making one special “T-night” roundup of wanderers in trailer camps, motels, lodging houses—and an “M-night” survey scouring the skid-row missions, flophouses and hobo jungles. In spite of it all, they expect to miss an estimated 2,000,000 people, as they did last time.

When the enumerators are finished, the real job begins. From some 400 temporary field offices, 2150 tons of paper—enough to fill 100 boxcars and to print an average Sunday edition of The New York Times— will pour into census headquarters as they always have. But there, similarity with the past ends.

Keeping one jump ahead of its ever-burgeoning job has been a specialty of the Census Bureau ever since 1880 when it took seven years to complete a 22-volume report on a mere 50,000,000 Americans, using tedious hand methods. By then the 1890 census was already in the making. The first innovation, invented by one of the Bureau’s own men—Dr. Herman Hollerith—involved transferring information from the census-taker’s sheets to paper cards, in the form of punched codes.

But for the 1960 decennial census, even punch cards were too cumbersome and time consuming. The result is FOSDIC—an electronic wizard that was under development even before the last card was filed in the 1950 countdown.

Here’s how the new system will work: Before FOSDIC can digest the masses of information on each of the enumerators’ 60 million work sheets, they must be microfilmed. So, first stop for these bales of paper will be the census offices at Jefferson-ville, Ind., where a battery of 30 cameras will reduce each tabloid-size sheet to a crystal-sharp picture half the size of a four-cent stamp. By the time these cameras have finished their continuous grind, 950 miles of 16-mm. film will have clicked through their shutter gates.

As fast as it is processed, the film will speed to Suitland, and be fed into the electronic maws of five humming FOSDICs. Basically, FOSDIC is an electronic scanner, similar to a television camera. An electron beam in its single cathode-tube “eye” scans two work sheets simultaneously, sweeping across them in a series of lines. But instead of transmitting what it sees in light and shadow signals, like the lines on your TV screen, the enumerator’s black circles that the “eye” picks out on the work forms are converted into magnetic pulses on a magnetic tape.

Since FOSDICs eye can be instructed to examine only certain sections of a form— such as the “male” squares, or the “single family dwelling” circles written in by the enumerators—you can begin to understand the significance of these devices.

As fast as the magnetized tape spews from the FOSDICs, it is fed through one of a battery of four giant UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer) brains. UNIVAC is really the core of the census miracle. This is the nerve center that, once instructed, digests the magnetic information from FOSDIC, analyzes it, and produces requested answers in orderly fashion on a new magnetic tape. If, for instance, UNIVAC is told to tabulate the number of male household heads from the FOSDIC tapes, the big brain will sample the magnetic pulses, decide on a “yes” or “no” basis which ones qualify, and store in its memory only those that do. The incredible brain makes each decision in 17-millionths of a second, and reads some 20,000 impulses per second. More than 1000 census forms are read, analyzed and broken down into required bulk statistics by UNIVAC in about five minutes.

Although UNIVAC can’t think, it can spot errors and mistakes with unerring accuracy. If, for instance, it stumbles onto a string of illogical facts, such as 55 male heads of households under 10 years of age, it will automatically reject these from its final totals. If a circuit fails, or a series of pulses are missing due to a tape failure, it will make a note of this on its own tape, and the message will be conveyed to the operators of the high-speed printers moments later. To cover all of the wide variety of census statistics, the FOSDIC master tapes will spin through the system over and over again.

Summary tapes from the UNIVACs move on to the electronically controlled highspeed printers, which read their magnetic pulses and instantly turn them into a sort of teletype form that anyone can read. This little whiz can turn out statistical tables at the dizzy rate of 600 lines per minute.

Besides speeding publication of the census reports, the use of these electronic wizards will enable the Bureau of Census to compute many more averages and statistical breakdowns than ever before. Complicated ratios and trend figures, formerly left uncalculated because of the tremendous manpower and time involved, will be duck soup for the UNIVAC 1105.

What’s more, plucking a given set of facts from the stored memory films at any time in the future will be simple compared to the handling of endless punch-card files. Microfilm for the entire 1960 population and housing census will be stashed in an area no bigger than your bedroom. Cards from the 1950 decennial census fill an area nearly 200 times greater.

Storage and easy access gets to be a major headache when you realize that the decennial census is only one more job for the Bureau, albeit a big one. Actually, census-taking never stops at Suitland. Month after month all manner of special surveys are conducted by mail as well as by armies of interviewers. Many are published in various summaries such as the annual Statistical Abstract, in which you can find such tidbits of miscellaneous intelligence as the total number of lady locomotive engineers in 1957, or how many childless male “laundresses” there are today.

There isn’t much information about Americans and their business or social enterprises that can’t be found stored away in some Bureau survey. Not all of it has been broken down into published statistical tables. But if you or your company had to know, let’s say, how many transistors were produced by how many American factories in 1948—and how this compared with Japanese production—the Bureau will run its stored data through the mill for you at a nonprofit fee, provided the job can be squeezed into its busy schedule. On occasion, when the survey concerns something of national interest that they are free to publish themselves, they will even take a private census for anyone willing to pay the cost of labor and equipment time. Many special nose-counts are conducted for cities and towns.

Although individual forms are strictly confidential, any person with a legitimate reason can call on the Bureau to dig out information about himself and his immediate family. Since it started business, the Bureau’s Personal Census Service has helped 3,500,000 people to prove birth dates or citizenship for purposes of clearing their right to old-age benefits and legacies.

Usually searchers have only the skimpiest facts to go on. “I was born in Wisconsin during the big smoke;” or “It was the year that big ship sank.” So, starting with the

date of the big Peshtigo forest fires, or the Titanic disaster, the hunt begins and is often successful. To avoid the hazard of misspelled names, the Bureau has a “Soundex” file in Kansas, coding nearly a quarter of a billion names by the way they sound. An ordinary uncomplicated name, such as John Q. Doe, can be turned up here in a matter of seconds.

All this constitutes day-to-day operations for the Bureau of the Census. The big countdown each zero year is the icing on the cake. The one coming up next month was three years in planning.

Out of it all, in just a month or two, you and I will know a lot more about us. Some of the facts that the new census will re-veal have already been projected by the Bureau. They know, for instance, that it’s going to show American families growing bigger; that marriageable women are going to outnumber marriageable men by about 2,000,000 in every place but Alaska, where the ratio is five-to-one in the other direction; that Americans are growing younger as well as older, due to rapid strides in medical care and war against disease; that the center of our population will move almost 20 miles further west from its last focal point near Olney, Ill., due to the addition of two new states.

But when UNIVAC has finished gobbling up the actual data, there are bound to be some surprises.

  1. Nick Moffitt says: January 24, 20082:44 am

    In English, the plural of “census” is “censuses”. In Latin, the plural of “census” is actually “census”.

  2. Firebrand38 says: January 24, 20086:06 am

    And then there’s this on the 1940 census http://www.threestooges…

  3. Tim says: March 24, 20092:08 pm

    Notice the US population was less than 200 million back then. And yet, we are rapidly approaching 300 million today. That means, that while it took about 200 years for this country to reach 200 million, it will take less than 50 years to increase the population by ONE THIRD, with unknown effects on the environment. And yet, as a society, we’re trying our best to ignore the issue of immigration… Bizarre.

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