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The 1890 Census Helped Grow Computing

Herman Hollerith's census card reader machine.
U.S. Census
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Herman Hollerith's census card reader machine.

The 2020 census is going digital. We recently brought you a story of how this technological innovation could lead to undercounting Native Americans who live on tribal land.

Today, we’re flipping that equation and rather than looking at how computer technology is affecting the census, we’re asking how the census has affected the development of computer technology.

Herman Hollerith is considered one of the forefathers of modern computing. He invented the first punch card reader. He did that to make analyzing census data easier.

David Lindsay Roberts is an adjunct professor of mathematics at Prince George's Community College. The story of Herman Hollerith is one of nearly two dozen featured in his new book “Republic of Numbers: Unexpected Stories of Mathematical Americans through History.”

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.