The Racist Origins of Computer Technology

A century ago, America loved eugenics and was obsessed with protecting its "superior" Anglo-American stock from the threat of immigration. Out of this nativist vortex, the first computer was born.

Medium’s One Zero magazine just published my big historical-investigative article about the US census and the racist origins of modern computer technology.

It’s a forgotten history that starts in the 1880s, when the first commercial computer was invented by an American engineer named Herman Hollerith (that’s him up there on business trip in St. Petersburg). It takes you on journey through the racial politics of early 20th century America and ends up in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, while making a brief stop at Steven Bannon and Donald Trump’s nativist palace.

A century ago, America was in love with eugenics. It was consumed by fears of “race suicide” and obsessed with the need to safe-guard its “superior” Anglo-American stock from the millions of immigrants arriving on its shores. Out of this vortex of nativist fears, the world’s first rudimentary punch card computer was born — built on order from the U.S. government for the 1890 census.

The quote in the picture above comes from a letter Herman Hollerith wrote explaining why he ended up going with a “punch card” design over a continuous ticker tape for his newfangled computation device: it would make analyzing the racial attributes of the population much easier. “The trouble was that if, for example, you wanted any statistics regarding Chinamen, you would have to run miles of paper to count a few Chinamen,” he explained. Racial data was front and center in his mind as he perfected his invention.

Ultimately, Hollerith’s technology would form the backbone of IBM, the oldest computer company in the world — a company that is still ubiquitous in business and government, and is embedded in America’s state security apparatus.

IBM’s origin story, which goes back over 130 years, offers a glimpse into how computers, surveillance, and racist government policies have been linked from the very beginning.

I stumbled on this story while researching the origins of computers for my book, Surveillance Valley. Now, delving deeper into it, I was myself surprised by how dark and nuanced that history is.

People forget what a totally openly fascist country America was before World War II. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis ruined it for everyone. Because until they came along and took their racist theories a little too far, everyone loved eugenics. Americans cheered human selective breeding programs, and the most respected members of society advocated for forced sterilization and the banning of immigrants deemed to be genetically unfit. It was seen as scientific progress — the wave of the future! Over thirty states passed legislation that regulated forced sterilization on genetic and social grounds. These laws were affirmed by the Supreme Court and are still on the books today.

America in the early 20th century was like a steampunk version of Gattaca. You know people were into it when men voluntarily enrolled their wives and children in “Fitter Families” and “Better Babies” contests organized in county fairs around the country, showcasing their families in front of crowds alongside their hogs and cows, and bragging about their human superior breeding. No joke. Just look at this 1926 article from the Milwaukee Sentinel:

Eugenics and computers? It’s not as strange as it seems. It’s all about data, you see.

Read the story here:

The Racist—and High Tech—Origins of America’s Modern Census: “How the tools built to conduct the U.S. Census fueled Nazi genocide, internment, and state-sanctioned racism—and helped usher in the digital age.”

Yasha Levine is the author of Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet