The 1950 U.S. Census (Feb, 1950)

The census department had some serious technical chops in 1950. Census workers were given maps and aerial photos of their districts so they could find all of the residences. The punch card counting machines seem pretty advanced as well with data validation circuits that would reject, for example, a two year old with six kids. I wonder how many kids they considered it alright for a two year old to have?

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By Richard F. Dempewolff

For A house-to-house canvass that will make all the brush salesmen in the world look like an army of pikers, wait until you see the one that gets under way April first. Yup, it’s time for the 1950 decennial census, Uncle Sam’s national inventory of noses—the biggest quiz show, most mammoth tabulating phenomenon and most accurate poll in history.

It’s a job that has taxed the ingenuity of a harried Census Bureau every zero year since 1790. At that time 17 U. S. marshals and 600 assistants knocked on colonial doors, asked five questions of whoever answered, then tacked their lists on the walls of local taverns, so that people who’d been skipped could add their names or Xs when they dropped by for a flagon of ale. Results were mailed to the President.

The job has grown a little more complicated since 1790. This year, 140,000 hurried but polite “enumerators” will scour the country armed with pencils and paper forms measuring about two by three feet. They must ring some 45,000,000 doorbells, ask 60 or 70 questions and tally data on an estimated 150,000,000 people; all in two weeks.

To accomplish the staggering job, the Census Bureau has divided the country into 14 regions. Each region is divided and subdivided into about 14,000 “enumerating districts.” Census supervisors will man about 450 field offices. It’s going to take 90 mail cars to haul supplies to those offices, and when the quiz is over, completed schedules will go to Washington in 60,000 boxes.

This year, census takers will have some new tools to help them with their great American man hunt. For years, Air Force and Department of Agriculture planes have been zooming across the country taking vertical aerial photographs of every nook and cranny of the U.S.A. Already these maps have helped farmers with their contour plowing and reclamation work. Now they’re going to help the census taker. For the first time in history, the roving statistician will have a real picture of his territory, showing every road, stream, shack and shanty in the area.

All last year, up in the darkroom of the census map division, geographers were busy preparing about a million of these and other diagrammatic maps for the field workers. Many of the aerial shots have been used to make diagrammatic maps of obscure places. Census geographers project the aerials through a monster machine to scale. An operator traces the projection, detailing dwellings, roads, waterways, bridges and boundaries. Out goes the finished sketch to blueprint machines, or an Ozelid printer that reels off duplicates at a rate of about 20 a minute.

The Ozelid’s four-foot-wide ribbon of paper takes two maps across. For a while, men stood at the end of the machine with great shears, snipping the endless sheet up the middle, and across, as each pair of maps came out. They tore a lot of maps with their double-barreled snipping. Then one smart opera-
tor rigged a crossbar over the drums. In the center, he hung a razor blade on an arm. Now the boys just snip the sheet across; the razor slits it down the middle between the maps, as it reels off the drums.

Importance of maps to an enumerator cannot be underestimated. Boundaries change from year to year. Rivers change course each year—especially the Mississippi, which continually builds new islands and inundates old ones. Suddenly an island belongs to the state on the other side of the river; both states claim it, or perhaps neither. If people live on it, the census takers never know what state they belong to, or which enumerator’s responsibility they are.

So, this year, each census taker will have a diagram map or aerial photo of his exact district. There will be no overlaps or misses. He may find some new houses and roads, but the hunt will be lots easier.

Even with good maps, the census-taker’s job is no dream. Temporary trailer cities spring up and disappear overnight. There’s a tremendous population of gypsy-minded Americans living in tin and box-board “jungles” who are here today and gone tomorrow. Grizzled prospectors in the desert won’t hold still for counting. Nor will the shepherds on the wind-chilled plateaus of the Rockies, hermits living in wilderness caves, or the hoboes on boxcars in remote sidings. Yet, the enumerators must get them all, and they will.

Ex-schoolteachers, retired businessmen, widows are the people who do the nose-counting. Whatever their civilian calling, they all must have a spirit of adventure. Ten years ago, months before the counting was to begin in the states, Bill Arends, assistant to the Alaska supervisor, set out across the frozen tundra by dog sled to count Eskimo noses in the bleak regions above the Arctic Circle. His job was completed by the time the 1940 census got under way in the U. S. proper. His counterpart for the 1950 census is already on his way and will have his job done by the time you read this.

Down in the Florida swamps and the Mississippi Delta country, enumerators will have to ferret out Indian villages and wandering muskrat trappers, deep in the jungle bogs. They’ll pole their way through tangled cypress roots in long, thin pirogues which, says one government pollster, “are just stable enough so that if you hold your cigarette square in the middle of your mouth, you may not tip over.”

Their tired cars will climb to the heart of wilderness mountains at 10,000 feet elevation, and steam across the parched floor of Death Valley, 200 feet below sea level. They’ll be battered by hurricanes, whipped by blizzards. They’ll bog down in swamps and blow tires miles from civilization. They’ll meet high adventure at every turn, like the fellow tabulating lumber camps in the Northwest. He was caught in a raging forest fire and had to sit neck deep in a creek for a whole day while searing flames swept over his head. Every time a good blast of flame came through, he’d duck his head under, and keep it there for a spell.

Census takers have done some incredible things in the line of duty. To get across an impassable gorge and tabulate workers in an ore mine, one enumerator rode over to the tipple in a glorified breeches buoy, dangling from cables 1000 feet in the air. Another swam an icy river with one hand, holding his clothes and papers aloft in the other, to quiz an old prospector who was too busy panning gold to quit for a moment and row across in his boat. Then, there was a lady census taker who climbed a 70-foot chimney to question a steeplejack who whimsically refused to come down.

In the course of their rounds, some roving compilers will find themselves as did enumerators in 1940, serving as midwives in delivering babies. Others will stagger home in tatters from encounters with dogs, billy goats, angry bulls, bears and peculiar people who, in spite of this enlightened age, still think the census taker is something akin to a member of the OGPU, out to grab all their belongings for the “State.”

A tough job? You haven’t heard half of it. When the field reports are complete by April 15, the real work starts. In the big white Census Bureau building in Suitland, Md., thousands of people will spend two full years checking, editing, coding and tabulating data on the 150 million people in the United States. By December 31,1952, the job will be finished and printed in more volumes than an encyclopedia. No one knows how many books will be filled by the 1950 census, but the last one came to 80 volumes, filling three five-foot bookshelves.

To help them, census employees have the fanciest collection of complicated machinery the mind of man has been able to devise. The mechanization started in 1890, when the business of counting and classifying people already had grown beyond the ability of simple humans to handle. It was almost time to start the 1890 decennial, and the boys hadn’t finished the 1880 tallies. A bureau statistician, Dr. Herman Hollerith, came up with the idea of punching holes in various places in cards, to represent facts such as “male,” “three children,” “farm family,” etc. Then he rigged a machine that the cards could go through and automatically be counted and classified according to where the holes were. Today, the same basic system is in use—only now it’s almost all electronic, with new and more complex machines appearing all the time. Rows of workers will peck away at 2500 card-punch machines, each one completing the 60 or 70 basic-fact holes in 1000 cards a day. From there the cards go to the sorters and tabulators, which automatically classify and count them according to location of their holes.

These machines are masterpieces of ingenuity. Down in the shops of the Census Bureau there’s a man named Tony Berlin-sky, who is busily at work making them more ingenious. “When we finally got a machine to handle 40 columns of facts or ‘holes’ in a card,” he says, “those guys upstairs had to go think of 20 more questions they wanted to ask on the next census—so everything is obsolete. This time I’m rebuilding the multi-column sorters to combine the sorting and tabulating operations. They’ll handle 80 columns of facts. I hope it holds ’em for a while. It probably won’t, though,” he adds soberly.

The inside of Tony’s multi-column sorter looks like a vat full of wet, black spaghetti. Basically, the principle is simple enough. The cards move across the top on rollers, pass under a row of 80 microscopic metal brushes, which make contact with the metal roll beneath the card every time they come to a hole. Each contact sets up an impulse which is relayed through a battery of thy-rotron tubes where the information is “stored.” High-speed relays set off the proper electromagnets, depending on what information has been received. A magnetic trip drops and the card is routed to its proper slot. For instance, if 1500 out of 5000 cards going through the mill represent people who live in two-story houses, and you want that information, then the 1500 cards of two-story people will all land in one slot once the relays are set up. Simple? Tony explains that his reconditioned sorter has more than 10,000 wire connections. He should know; he connected them all.

Besides sorting, the machine will reject cards with mistakes on them. “If the little ‘feelers’ register opposing facts,” Tony explains, “—for example, if a card says a certain male is two years old, and another hole indicates he has six children—the circuits won’t take it. The card is routed to the reject slot. Similarly, if a farmer’s card has a hole punched to indicate he got something ridiculous like $55 a bushel for his wheat, the circuits won’t take that either.”

Coming up are census machines that will make the others seem like box kites beside jet flying wings. One such electronic nightmare, being developed for Census through the National Bureau of Standards, is a 10,000-tube affair styled after the Eniac computer which was used during the war to calculate the trajectory of missiles while they were still in the air. This fantastic apparatus has a memory, among other things. Instead of taking data from punched cards, it will work by magnetic impulse from a tape which has been magnetically inscribed with the data to be tallied or computed. If there is an error on the tape, the machine will quit working on that problem, but will go right ahead with the rest. When the mistake has been corrected, the machine will pick up the abandoned computation where it left off, and finish it. The uncanny brain works at such a speed that no way has ever been devised to feed data into it fast enough to tax its capacity. This monster will be ready on a test basis to gobble figures in its maw in time for the 1950 census.

Not quite ready yet, but available for the 1960 census, is another electronic marvel that may well simplify census taking so that final figures will be out in months instead of years. It will eliminate manual card punching. The census taker will carry cards, just the right size for the machines, instead of the huge paper form he now totes. As he asks questions, he will mark the card with a metallic ink. Back in Washington, the metallic marks will be “sensed” by the new machine, and automatically punched in all the right places at once.

The manufacturer of the machine is still experimenting with the ink and trying to solve several problems. Likewise the materials from which the cards are to be made are still under test. The cards, which must all be perfectly shaped and edged to go through all the necessary machines, bent, shrank or stretched due to weather when conventional paper stock was used. Little by little these things are being straightened out. The ink is better now, and new plastics are being tried for the cards.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Census will be too busy to dream about the wonders of 1960. They’ve got plenty of calculating to do. Already they know, from preliminary surveys, what the 1950 round-up of Americans will show. We will have grown in number by a solid 20 million in the last 10 years—30 years ahead of schedule, due to war babies. Women will outnumber the men by a glorious million for the first time in history. The trend is still Westward, and California will top the 10-million mark in population, which puts her up with New York and Pennsylvania and gives her seven more congressmen. Ten percent of the farmers have deserted their farms to move cityward. And we will find that we’re not the homebodies we used to be. Some 70 million of us have moved our dwellings in the first seven years of the decade. Most stayed in the same county—but 25 million got clear out of the county or state.

How does the Census Bureau know all this? Because the job never stops. In between decennial jobs, the bureau is taking surveys of housing, business, agriculture. There’s never a dull moment at Suitland. What started out in 1790 as a simple population count has snowballed into the world’s biggest continual statistical operation. And the big job every zero year is just one more headache.

  1. […] The 1950 U.S. Census (1950) This article describes the 1950 U.S. census and the advanced technology used both to collect and analyse the data. With a population of 45 million, it was a massive undertaking. Census enumerators were given aerial photographs to help them find every house in their district. The results were then fed into punch card machines capable of processing 1,000 cards, each one representing a census form, per day. […]

  2. […] The 1950 U.S. Census […]

  3. Bob says: June 28, 201012:01 pm

    The first two pictures in this article are the same ones they used in the article for the 1940

  4. manuel says: December 14, 20113:02 pm

    i need to know where was my father in 1950 . he was in california but i need to know the place . can you help me ?

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