The Racist Origins of Silicon Valley

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.

About a year ago, OneZero published my dive into a corner of America’s long-forgotten history — a history of the US census and the racist origins of modern computer technology. Given the times, I figure it’s worth a repost. Because I still think this side of computer history is not known nearly well enough.

The story 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 all of this while researching the origins of computers for my book, Surveillance ValleyI was myself surprised by how dark and nuanced that history is.

At the turn of 20th century, systemic anti-black racism and repression was obviously deep and pervaded all spheres of life in America. But the racialized thinking of that age was more expansive than that.

People forget what an openly proto-fascist country America was before World War II. You could say that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis ruined it for everyone. Because until they came along and took their racist theories just a tad too far (and then lost the war), these same ideas enjoyed wide popularity in all sectors of society.

For instance: 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 racialized steampunk version of Gattaca. You could tell people were really into this stuff when men voluntarily enrolled their wives and kids into “Fitter Families” and “Better Babies” contests organized in county fairs. They showcased their families in front of crowds — right alongside their hogs and cows — and bragged about the superior breeding of their familial specimens. No joke.

Just look at this 1926 article from the Milwaukee Sentinel:

A lot of this race-based eugenics stuff got toned down after World War II. But it didn’t disappear, it was (mostly) toned down and transmuted into “scientific” racism and eugenics like the much celebrated the “Bell Curve” theory of the 1990s or the data-based genetic obsession of Silicon Valley today.

Anyway, here’s the article. It’s a long one!

—Yasha Levine

The Racist Origins of America’s Tech Industry

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
By Yasha Levine

On a freezing day in December 1896, an American inventor by the name of Herman Hollerith rushed to catch a train out of the Russian city of St. Petersburg. He wore a fur cap and a thick fur-lined coat with a huge collar buttoned up all the way over his ears. It covered his mouth as well as his big droopy mustache — leaving just a bit of pink flesh peeking out at the world.

Hollerith was a hypochondriac who preferred staying at home with his wife and mother-in-law, tinkering with inventions. He hated travel, and he hated traveling in Europe most of all. Like a 19th-century version of a tech bro, he was obsessed with efficiency and mocked the locals for being bogged down by time-wasting traditions. “They are all living in what happened thousands of years ago,” he wrote to his wife from Italy. “I saw them cutting lumber on the road from Naples to Pompeii, and, when I got to Pompeii, I found paintings on walls showing exactly the same way of cutting lumber.”

For all his grumbling about travel, the inventor had come far in his own life. Hollerith was only 36 years old and had been raised in a modest home by a widowed mother in New York, yet he had just spent weeks rubbing shoulders with aristocrats from one the most exotic royal dynasties in the world. And now he was on his way back home with a fat and juicy contract for his new business venture.

A few years earlier, Russian Czar Nicholas II issued an imperial decree ordering his ministers to carry out the Russian Empire’s first countrywide census. With the 1897 deadline looming, they were scrambling to comply. They knew it was going to be a monumental task — and perhaps an impossible one.

The Russian Empire had a population estimated between 100 million and 200 million people, a range that might tell you why the czar needed to carry out a census. It stretched from Europe through the full length of Asia, a landmass almost three times the size of the United States. To count all these people, census takers would have to travel to extremely isolated regions and poll people in dozens of different languages. And there was trouble brewing already. Tatar Muslim communities in Southern Russia saw the planned count as a secret czarist plot to convert them to Christianity, while some Russian Orthodox sects saw the census as a sign of the Antichrist and vowed they would sooner burn themselves alive than submit to such blasphemy.

Making the count was just the half of it. The data also needed to be tallied and analyzed. The czar wanted the census to be as modern as possible — including information on age, literacy, gender, nationality, place of birth, residency, and occupation. It was a bureaucrat’s worst nightmare.

The people in charge of the census knew the only way to finish the job in a reasonable amount of time would be to use the most advanced technology on the market. And that’s where the 36-year-old Hollerith came in.

A few years earlier, working for the U.S. Census Bureau, Hollerith had developed the world’s first functional mass-produced computer: the Hollerith tabulator. An electromechanical device about the size of large desk and dresser, it used punch cards and a clever arrangement of gears, sorters, electrical contacts, and dials to process data with blazing speed and accuracy. What had taken years by hand could be done in a matter of months. As one U.S. newspaper described it, “with [the device’s] aid some 15 young ladies can count accurately half a million of names in a day.”

Russia was not the only country interested in Hollerith’s computer technology. He had set up shop in New York just a few years earlier but was already known in rarified bureaucratic circles around the globe. Canada, Germany, and Norway were eager to lease his machines. A company in Austria was trying to pirate his designs and offer them to European governments at a lower cost.

Hollerith’s tabulators could work with any kind of data and adapt to any large information-intensive corporate enterprise. Railroad and insurance companies were lining up outside Hollerith’s door for their own custom-built data solutions.

Hollerith’s invention caught the zeitgeist of the Second Industrial Revolution — a time of rapid automation and mechanization. It was an era of railroads, giant steamer ships, telegraphs, radio, electricity, massive factories, and unprecedented real-time international communication. Shipping schedules, train timetables, complex banking data, actuary tables, social welfare programs, and government budgets were all proliferating faster than humans could keep track of them. Information was king, and data processing was in constant demand.

Within a few years, Hollerith was the multimillionaire owner of a company that would eventually launch the U.S. computer industry. A few decades after returning from Russia, his technology would form the backbone of International Business Machines, or IBM — a global conglomerate that for almost a century would be synonymous with information processing and computer technology. Sold under IBM’s brand name, Hollerith’s technology would power civilian governments, militaries, and corporations around the world, crunching numbers into the Cold War and all the way to the dawn of the internet in the 1960s. The world did not simply use Hollerith’s tabulators; it became addicted to them and was shaped by them.

Hollerith was hailed as a genius. Many believed his invention was part of a larger data-driven technology revolution that would lead to a better, more efficient, and more harmonious world. One leading American statistician predicted it would usher in an age of “universal justice” and “make international wars impossible.”

But for all the utopian talk about Hollerith’s computers, the technology had dark roots.

Dreaming of MAGA

The U.S. Census — specifically mandated by the Constitution to take place every 10 years — is back in the news not only because the next count kicks off in 2020 but because, as it often has in the past, the census is a political flashpoint with inevitable racial undertones.

The current controversy revolves around a plan devised by Donald Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census form. On the surface, it seems like an inconsequential detail. But there is wide agreement that adding it will have profound political implications for a decade to come.

Aggregated population data provided by the census is a critical component in our democratic system. Its most important function is to apportion Congressional representation for the coming decade, but it also determines the structure of the Electoral College and guides the distribution of hundreds of billions in federal spending. Objections to the addition of a citizenship question are based on concerns about undercounting. The fear, widely shared by former census officials, is that asking people for their citizenship status will push some immigrants and Latinos to avoid taking part in the census altogether. A large enough undercount of a specific minority or socio-economic group will skew how seats are apportioned in the House of Representatives, shifting political power and federal resources away from districts where these groups reside.

The Trump administration has claimed that the citizenship question is being added for a good cause: to help the federal government enforce the Voting Rights Act and protect minorities from voter discrimination. But many immigrant advocates don’t buy this logic. They see the citizenship question as part and parcel of Trump’s larger anti-immigrant agenda.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, put it this way: “The decision by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to force the last-minute addition of an untested question on citizenship will result in an undercount of Latinos. While we do not know the true motivation behind these actions, we know the impact: as a consequence of these actions, Census 2020 is on track to significantly undercount the Latino population in the United States.”

Others are more direct.

“Our president, the face of our federal government, which oversees the census, has based his candidacy on a deeply anti-immigrant platform,” says Betsy Plum, vice president of policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, one of the organizations trying to stop the Trump administration from adding the question. “What the citizenship question did was it took a much broader fear and focused it right onto the census. The risk to a place like New York’s congressional representation cannot be understated.”

Demographic shifts are already expected to result in Northeastern states losing several congressional seats, and the added question may make the situation worse. “I think this is absolutely the intent of really weaponizing the census against immigrant communities. Places like New York and places like California are very much the target.”

But there is another, less discussed dimension to the issue. Based on a close reading of internal Department of Commerce documents tied to the census citizen question proposal, it appears the Trump administration wants to use the census to construct a first-of-its-kind citizenship registry for the entire U.S. population — a decision that arguably exceeds the legal authority of the census.

“It was deep in the documentation that was released,” Robert Groves, a former Census Bureau director who headed the National Academies committee convened to investigate the 2020 census, told me by telephone. “No one picked up on it much. But the term ‘registry’ in our world means not a collection of data for statistical purposes but rather to know the identity of particular people in order to use that knowledge to affect their lives.”

Given the administration’s posture toward immigration, the fact that it wants to build a comprehensive citizenship database is highly concerning. To Groves, it clearly signals “a bright line being crossed.”

Multiple states have challenged the Trump administration’s plans, and their lawsuits are headed to the Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear the case in April. Meanwhile, at an oversight hearing in March, Democratic U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dug into Wilbur Ross, Trump’s multi-millionaire Secretary of Commerce, who oversees the U.S Census Bureau. She accused him of conspiring with nativists and white supremacists to add the citizenship question — and of overstepping his authority. “Why are we violating law to include this question?” she demanded.

Whatever the courts ultimately decide, the latest debate over the census is hardly new. For most of its history, the census — and the constitutionally mandated government bureaucracy that carries it out — has been intertwined with nativism, bigotry, and fear of “the other.”

The dark and ugly history of the census makes it a uniquely telling weathervane of race politics in America. That the census simultaneously played a central role in the development of the computer age more than 130 years ago makes it doubly relevant, offering a glimpse into how computers, surveillance, and racist government policies have been linked from the very beginning.

Counting for democracy

Governments have been counting their people since the beginning of recorded history. You can find descriptions of censuses in the Old Testament, on Sumerian cuneiform tablets, and in the writings of the ancient Greeks. There were censuses in pre-modern Europe. Most American colonies kept population records, too. Governments counted people for two main reasons: raising state revenue and waging war. They needed to know who and what to tax, and they needed to know how many fighting-age men could be mobilized. It was the U.S. Constitution that added a third and novel reason for counting people: representational democracy.

When the drafters of the U.S. government’s founding set of principles met in Philadelphia in 1787, one of the first things they hammered out was a clause mandating that the population be counted every 10 years. This directive for a decennial census appears up at the top of the Constitution, long before the document gets around to laying out the structure of the government. To the framers of the Constitution, the census came first because it determined taxation and the balance of congressional political power.

Under the Constitution, the number of seats in the House of Representatives apportioned to each state would be based on population, which meant the government needed to know the precise number of people living in each state.

The first census took place in 1790 and was overseen by Thomas Jefferson, who was then serving as Secretary of State. It was mostly a straightforward head count designed to meet the constitutional mandate. The whole enterprise was expected to take no more than nine months to complete. But despite its simplicity and our nation’s tiny population, it took nearly two years to fully tabulate. And it only got worse from there.

With every passing decade, the census took longer to complete. It was filled with errors and undercounts, which led to nasty scandals and accusations that the data was being manipulated for political ends. By the end of the 1800s, the bureaucratic problem had become untenable: The census was taking nearly 10 years to complete, meaning the results were outdated even before they came in.

When the first census was carried out, there were 3.9 million people living in 13 states. By 1890, the U.S. encompassed 42 states and had a population of 63 million — increasing 16 times over in the span of a century. Never before had a country swelled so much so quickly. Still doing their work the old-fashioned way — with pen and paper — census workers struggled to keep up. They were drowning in data.

Meanwhile, on top of having to enumerate a rapidly growing population, government officials began to cram the census with more and more questions: data on occupations, literacy levels, criminal histories, medical conditions, home ownership, economic trends, and a whole lot of probing about people’s race and immigration status.

As the 19th century drew to a close, census officials had started transforming what should have been a simple head count into a system of racial surveillance.

Anglo-American superiority

It was a different U.S. back then: smaller and mostly rural and rapidly expanding along the western frontier. The Civil War had come to an end, and with it, the U.S. Army shifted its resources to fighting and exterminating Native Americans west of the Mississippi. Transcontinental railroads were connecting huge swaths of the country — shrinking time and space and shifting economic power to a new set of financial and railroad business elites.

The country’s demographics and race politics were rapidly changing, too.

Slavery had been abolished, allowing millions of blacks to freely move, attempt to take charge of their own destinies, and play a role in the country’s political life. Immigration was making itself felt. Well into the 19th century, free immigration into the U.S. had been largely dominated by English settlers. But starting in the 1850s, that pattern began changing drastically. Millions of Irish peasants streamed into the country to escape the potato famine, which killed over one million people. Millions more were fleeing the crushing poverty of Southern Italy and the eastern territories of the Russian Empire. Chinese laborers were arriving on the West Coast en masse to build U.S. railroads.

This influx was a boon to an emerging industrial oligarchy, a source of never-ending cheap labor. But it was also a source of political instability. Widespread inequality and exploitation led to massively popular movements for change. There were labor protests and strikes, the emergence of the populist movement, and a nationwide self-help organization created by dirt-poor farmers. Socialist and anarchist ideas achieved broad adherence. Black civil rights activism emerged.

America’s political establishment looked on this instability, social unrest, and change with horror. They saw the masses of free blacks and Chinese, Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants — and their tattered clothes, alien languages, unnatural religions, and demands for better treatment and political rights — as a threat.

Grasping about for solutions, many settled on various strains of race science quackery. So-called social Darwinists relied on a twisted version of the theory of evolution to explain why the poor and marginalized should remain that way while the wealthy and successful deserved to rule unchallenged. Taking this notion a step further, adherents of eugenics fervently believed that naturally superior Anglo-Americans were on the verge of being wiped out due to the high birth rates of “degenerate” and immigrant stock. To head off this threat, they advocated strict controls on reproduction — breeding humans for quality in the same way that farmers did cows and horses.

These were not fringe ideas but were firmly embraced by the American cultural and political mainstream. From future presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, and Calvin Coolidge to robber barons like J.P. Morgan and Leland Stanford to writers like H.G. Wells and progressive activists like Margaret Sanger, eugenics was all the rage.

In the first decades of the 20th century, 32 states passed sterilization laws to deal with the threat of genetic degradation — laws that were upheld by the Supreme Court. And few worried more about the threat of genetic degradation than the officials at the U.S. Census Bureau.

Purity police

Born into a wealthy Boston family, Francis A. Walker served in the Civil War as a general, dabbled in journalism, and ultimately made a name for himself as an influential Progressive Era economist and statistician who would later become president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As a professional economist, Walker had a keen interest in the nation’s changing demographics — and he was horrified by what he saw. Like most upper-class Americans at the time, Walker believed that the country’s original English colonists had evolved to be the most superior race on the planet — superior even to the original English race from which they sprang.

To him, Anglo-Americans stood on the pinnacle of the world’s race pyramid. He and his people were “as far ahead of the English as the English were ahead of any other branch of the Teutonic race, which was in turn far ahead of the Slavs or the Celts,” he wrote.

He believed that the influx of poor immigrants from Ireland and Italy as well as Jews and Slavs from Eastern Europe was diluting the United States’ superior racial stock and threatening to drag American genetic superiority back into a cesspool of degradation and decline. He blamed these immigrants — “vast hordes of brutalized peasants” — for the social and political unrest that was happening around him.

“They are beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence,” he declared. “They have none of the ideas and aptitudes which fit men to take up readily and easily the problem of self-care and self-government.”

He not only pushed to restrict immigration in order to prevent what he viewed as Anglo-American “race suicide,” but also advocated forced sterilization. “We must strain out of the blood of the race more of the taint inherited from a bad and vicious past,” he wrote. “The scientific treatment which is applied to physical diseases must be extended to mental and moral disease, and a wholesome surgery and cautery must be enforced by the whole power of the state for the good of all.”

In addition to his other contributions to U.S. life, Walker served as superintendent of both the 1870 and 1880 U.S. Census.

Limits of technology

The census had been a racial instrument from its inception, beginning with the original constitutional clause that instructed census officials to count black slaves separately from whites and to assign them a value of only three-fifths of a person.

With each decade, new “racial” categories were invented and added to the mix: “free colored males and females” and “mulatto” were counted, including subdivisions like including “quadroon” and “octoroon.” Categories for Chinese, “Hindoo,” and Japanese were added, as were “foreign” and “native born” designations for whites. The census slowly expanded to collect other demographic data, including literacy levels, unemployment statistics, and medical ailments, such as those who were “deaf, dumb, and blind” and the “insane and idiotic.” All of it was broken down by race.

Most of these questions were included in a haphazard fashion. They were overtly political, added in response to whatever particular racial fear gripped the national ruling elite at the time.

The census needed to improve drastically. What it needed was a talented inventor, someone young and ambitious who would be able to come up with a method to automate tabulation and data analysis. Someone like Herman Hollerith.

A racial category for Chinese was added after railroad companies began importing cheap, exploitable laborers from China. Categories for “mulatto” came after the abolition of slavery caused a panic about the dangers of racial mixing. Questions about mental health and race were first added at the behest of a Southern senator right before the outbreak of Civil War. The results seemed to show that free blacks living in Northern states were on average 11 times more likely to be insane than Southern blacks living in slavery. Such questionable statistics were taken up by Southern politicians to bolster racist theories and argue against abolition.

To Walker, these early efforts didn’t go nearly far enough. As an economist and statistician, he wanted to collect and process more data and to professionalize and standardize the effort. He wanted it to be a proper, scientific “national inventory” — not a haphazard collection of facts.

But his dreams kept running up against a hard limit: technology. The census was still counted and analyzed by hand. The work was slow and limited. Sophisticated analysis was next to impossible.

The census needed to improve drastically. What it needed was a talented inventor, someone young and ambitious who would be able to come up with a method to automate tabulation and data analysis.

Someone like Herman Hollerith.

The inventor

Hollerith was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1860. His father, a classics teacher, died when he was a child, and he was raised by his mother. In 1879, when he graduated from the Columbia School of Mines with a degree in engineering, he was immediately recruited to help compile economic statistics for the 1880 census, which was being run by Walker.

At his new job, Hollerith, who had developed a reputation as an inventive engineer in college, was encouraged by senior census officials to study the enumeration process and come up with a solution to speed it up. After the 1880 census was complete, he quit his job for a teaching position at MIT —following Walker, who had recently been appointed president.

Hollerith kept tinkering with his invention, and before long, he came up with a design that separated the enumeration process into parts. The first involved converting data into a format that could be read by a machine. This he accomplished by punching holes on a piece of paper. The second step involved processing the data. This was accomplished by feeding the paper through a machine that, through a combination of pins and dials, read the number and position of the holes. At first, Hollerith experimented with using a continuous strip of paper — like the recent invention of ticker tape, which was widely used to transmit stock prices via telegraph. But he wasn’t happy with the results.

“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,” Hollerith later explained in a letter. Race was never far from his mind when working on his contraption.

He eventually hit upon a much better idea: Each person would be represented by their own punch card — an idea he picked up while taking a train. “I was traveling in the West and I had a ticket with what I think was called a punch photograph… the conductor… punched out a description of the individual, as light hair, dark eyes, large nose, etc.,” he explained, noting that he’d simply done the same thing.

The dawn of data

In March 1890, Hollerith’s machines were installed at the Inter-Ocean Building on Ninth Street in Washington, D.C., not far from the White House. He oversaw the installation himself, running around and barking orders to workmen who were hoisting creaky wooden crates from the street to the third floor.

Soon the property was transformed from a nondescript office space into the bustling headquarters of the 11th census. Hundreds of clerks worked around the clock in shifts, taking raw census data collected in the field and transferring it onto cards using specially designed hole punch machines and then passing the cards to another set of clerks who worked the tabulators and sorters. Hollerith’s machines clanked away all day and all night, with clerks crammed together like sweatshops workers.

Newspapers sent their correspondents to gawk at these futuristic contraptions. Because of the miserable track record of earlier censuses, the press was awash with predictions of incompetence and failure. They were wrong.

The 1890 census — the nation’s 11th — was the most ambitious yet. It contained 35 questions, 10 more than the previous census, on a whole range of data: literacy levels, sizes of household, professions, the value of a family’s property, and whether they rented or owned. Perhaps most important was the racial dimension. The census collected stats on native and foreign-born Americans and broke them into multiple racial categories: white, colored, Chinese, Japanese and “civilized Indian” (i.e., a Native American no longer living in a tribal society). It was the first census to include a complete count of Native Americans living on tribal lands. It asked for data on unemployment history, fertility rates, citizenship status, criminal history, literacy, and English language proficiency.

Despite the long list of questions and requirements for calculating a whole slew of new stats, including birth, unemployment, and causes of death divided up by race, the basic population count was completed in just six weeks. It would take a full four years to finish tabulating and editing all other categories of data and release the reports. It was an amazing improvement over the previous census, which took nearly a decade.

It wasn’t just the speed that set Hollerith’s invention apart. It was its ability to mine and sift through data and even combine multiple data points. Such fine-grained analysis on a mass scale was completely unprecedented, and it made Hollerith’s machines an immediate hit with the United States’ race-obsessed political class.

Robert Porter, head of the 1890 census, who had overseen the adoption of Hollerith’s tabulator machines, was deeply impressed by their power to sort immigrant and non-white populations based on numerous demographic variables. He was particularly pleased about being able to analyze the three things most feared by the “race suicide” crowd: immigration rates, immigrant fertility rates, and mixed race marriages (or what the census called the “conjugal condition”), all of which could be broken down by age, race, literacy levels, and naturalization status.

Simon Newton Dexter North, a longtime wool industry lobbyist who would head the 1900 census, was also dazzled by the power of Hollerith’s tabulators. Like Walker and other census colleagues, he was obsessed with immigration and cross-breeding. He believed they were diluting the country’s superior Anglo-American stock and destabilizing society.

“This immigration is profoundly affecting our civilization, our institutions, our habits and our ideals,” he warned in 1914. “It has transplanted here alien tongues, alien religions, and alien theories of government; it has been a powerful influence in the rapid disappearance of the Puritanical outlook upon life.”

North believed that bureaucrats and statisticians like him were fighting a new kind of war — a war for America’s genetic purity. And Hollerith’s tabulator technology was a vital weapon — an “epoch-making” invention — without which this fight would be lost.

Feeding the nativist beast

Overnight, Hollerith’s tabulator technology had transformed census taking from a simple head count into something that looked very much like a crude form of mass surveillance. To the race-obsessed political class, it was a revolutionary development. They could finally put the nation’s ethnic makeup under the microscope. The data seemed to confirm the nativists’ worst fears: Poor, illiterate immigrants were swarming America’s cities, breeding like rabbits, and outstripping native Anglo-American birth rates.

Immediately following the census, the states and the federal government passed a flurry of laws that heavily restricted immigration.

It started with the Immigration Act of 1891, which set up the first federal agency to oversee immigration and border control and turned an unused island on the southern tip of Manhattan into an elaborate screening center for immigrants. It continued through the passage of a half-dozen major immigration bills, including one that stripped women of U.S. citizenship if they married non-naturalized foreigners, culminating in the Immigration Act of 1924 — a landmark piece of legislation that introduced race immigration quotas.

This suite of laws gave immigration officials the power to ban just about anyone, including “idiots, imbeciles, and feeble-minded persons” or those who exhibited “constitutional psychopathic inferiority” or were “mentally or physically defective.” Anarchists and socialists were banned outright as was anyone from the “Asiatic Barred Zone,” which included most of Asia, the sub-continent, the Middle East, and parts of eastern Russia. Meanwhile, immigration from European countries was constrained by hard limits based on the 1890 census — the first census processed by Hollerith technology. Combined with the anti-Chinese bills passed in the late 19th century, these new laws created a virtual wall around the U.S. Immigration rates plunged.

The data provided by Hollerith’s invention did not cause the racism, nativism, and eugenics that saw class and poverty through the lens of breeding rather than politics and economic policy. But it gave those fears concrete shape — and it provided data to which those fears could be hitched.

To some U.S. bureaucrats, this data-driven eugenics system was just the beginning. North, who directed the U.S. Census Bureau from 1903 to 1909, dreamed of the day when detailed racial data could be collected and analyzed for the whole world and be used to guide human genetic development.

“The need for restraining the genetically deficient classes and families from the function of reproduction, is recognized as imperative,” he wrote in 1918 from his perch at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as World War I was coming to an end. “It is the dream of the true statistician that the day will some time arrive when the facts of demography will be available on identical bases for the entire globe. When that dream is realized, when comparable international statistics actually and everywhere exist, then we shall know the laws which determine human progress and can effectively apply them.”

His dream would soon be realized in Europe.

Hollerith goes global

The immediate success of his invention made Hollerith wealthy and famous. But that was just the beginning. In 1911, he sold his Tabulating Machine Company for a $2.3 million to Charles Flint, an infamous venture capitalist known in his day as the “Father of Trusts.”

Flint bought out Hollerith, combined his company with several other businesses that made precision mechanical contraptions — clocks, cash registers, coffee grinders, and butcher scales — to create a computational monopoly and handed this new conglomerate over to an ambitious young executive by the name of Thomas J. Watson.

As Hollerith slowly went senile in retirement, Watson ruthlessly leveraged the aging inventor’s computer technology to crush competition and establish a global monopoly in the early computation market. The result was International Business Machines, the company we now know as IBM, founded in 1911.

Installed in factories, corporate offices, and city and military bureaucracies, his tabulator computers not only sped up accounting but greatly reduced labor costs. Businesses and local and federal government agencies ordered Hollerith machines by the truckload. Insurance companies relied on them for accounting and calculating actuary tables. Railroads used them to route freight and work out schedules. At one railroad company, a single Hollerith machine operated by two people replaced the full time work of 20 clerks. They personified the blazing efficiency and automation of the technological revolution sweeping the Progressive Era.

Nowhere was this as obvious as the Social Security Administration, one of the signature programs of the New Deal.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law on Aug. 14, 1935, creating America’s first old-age pension program. The Social Security Act brought about a massive need for accounting and data processing for both businesses and the federal government. Businesses suddenly had to keep meticulous records on their employees. They needed to track salaries and Social Security contributions and file that information with the federal government. The government, in turn, had to process all that data. It needed to monitor contributions to each individual Social Security account over the lifetime of each individual. And then, when they hit retirement age, it had to cut monthly checks to millions of Americans.

As soon as the legislation passed, businesses queued up at IBM to get the proper tabulator payroll systems to meet federal accounting requirements. Phones at IBM’s sales offices rang off the hook. A Woolworth executive complained to IBM that handing the paperwork to comply with the Social Security Act alone would cost the company a quarter of a million dollars a year — $4.5 million today.

IBM won the contract to oversee accounting for the Social Security Administration, beating out competitors like Remington Rand. It was the only computer company at the time that had the experience and production capacity to undertake a project of that size. As one official IBM history put it, “the Social Security project catapulted IBM from a midsize corporation to the global leader in information technology.”

Naturally, the military was a big fan of the technology. In peacetime, the Department of War used the machines to keep track of enlistment data and track military pensions. When the U.S. entered the war, IBM’s Hollerith tech became a vital part of the Allied military effort.

Hollerith machines were involved in almost every part of the war, from designing the atomic bomb to managing troop deployment. Special “portable” IBM machines installed on trucks landed with U.S. troops in Normandy, Tunisia, Sicily, and Italy. They were used on the home front as well.

Hollerith tabulators were a big hit all over the world. But one country was particularly enamored with them: Nazi Germany.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S Census Bureau hauled out the punch cards from the 1940 census and reprocessed them to produce block-by-block population lists on Japanese-Americans in a half-dozen states, including California. Ultimately 130,000 Japanese-Americans were forced to move to concentration camps.

The head of the Census Bureau at the time, James Clyde Capt, was ecstatic with the data they were able to generate. For instance, he wrote to a subordinate, if the data showed “there were 801 Japs in a community and [authorities] only found 800 of them, then they have something to check up on.”

Nazis and numbers

Hollerith tabulators were a big hit all over the world. But one country was particularly enamored with them: Nazi Germany.

Adolf Hitler came to power on the back of the economic devastation that followed Germany’s defeat in World War I. To Hitler, however, the problem plaguing Germany was not economic or political. It was racial. As he put it in Mein Kampf: “The state is a racial organism and not an economic organization.” The reason Germany had fallen so far, he argued, was its failure to tend to its racial purity. There were only about a half-million Jews in Germany in 1933 — less than 1% of the population — but he singled them out as the root cause of all of the nation’s problems.

Hitler and the Nazis drew much of their inspiration from the U.S. eugenics movement and the system of institutional racism that had arisen in slavery’s wake. Their solution was to isolate the so-called mongrels, then continuously monitor the racial purity of the German people to keep the volk free of further contamination.

The only problem: How to tell who is really pure and who is not?

The U.S. had a ready solution. IBM’s German subsidiary landed its first major contract the same year Hitler became chancellor. The 1933 Nazi census was pushed through by Hitler as an emergency genetic stock-taking of the German people. Along with numerous other data points, the census focused on collecting fertility data for German women — particularly women of good Aryan stock. Also included in the census was a special count of religiously observant Jews, or Glaubensjuden.

Nazi officials wanted the entire count, estimated to be about 65 million people, to be done in just four months. It was a monumental task, and German IBM officials worked around the clock to finish it. So important was the success of the contract to IBM that CEO Thomas J. Watson personally toured the giant Berlin warehouse where hundreds of female clerks worked in rotating seven-hour shifts 24 hours a day.

Watson came away greatly impressed with the work of his German managers. They had pulled off a seemingly impossible assignment, one that was complicated by a custom-enlarged punch card format necessary for “political considerations” — IBM’s coded explanation for the extra data demands the Nazi regime required.

As Hitler’s Nazi Party tightened its grip on Germany, it launched all sorts of additional data-gathering programs to purify the German nation. And IBM helped them do it.

“[T]he precondition for every deportation was accurate knowledge of how many Jews in a particular district fitted the racial and demographic descriptions in Berlin’s quotas,” write David Martin Luebke and Sybil Milton in “Locating the Victim,” a study into Nazi use of the tabulator machines. “Armed with these data,” they said, “the Gestapo often proved able to anticipate with remarkable accuracy the total number of deportees for each racial, status, and age category.”

Germany’s vast state bureaucracy and its military and rearmament programs, including the country’s growing concentration camp/slave labor system, also required data processing services. By the time the U.S. officially entered the war in 1941, IBM’s German subsidiary had grown to employ 10,000 people and served 300 different German government agencies. The Nazi Party Treasury; the SS; the War Ministry; the Reichsbank; the Reichspost; the Armaments Ministry; the Navy, Army and Air Force; and the Reich Statistical Office — the list of IBM’s clients went on and on.

“Indeed, the Third Reich would open startling statistical venues for Hollerith machines never before instituted — perhaps never before even imagined,” wrote Edwin Black in IBM and the Holocaust, his pioneering 2001 exposé of the forgotten business ties between IBM and Nazi Germany. “In Hitler’s Germany, the statistical and census community, overrun with doctrinaire Nazis, publicly boasted about the new demographic breakthroughs their equipment would achieve.” (IBM has criticized Black’s reporting methods, and has said that its German subsidiary largely came under Nazi control before and during the war.)

Demand for Hollerith tabulators was so robust that IBM was forced to open a new factory in Berlin to crank out all the new machines. At the facility’s christening ceremony, which was attended by a top U.S. IBM executive and the elite of the Nazi Party, the head of IBM’s German subsidiary gave a rousing speech about the important role that Hollerith tabulators played in Hitler’s drive to purify Germany and cleanse it of inferior racial stock.

“We are very much like the physician, in that we dissect, cell by cell, the German cultural body,” he said. “We report every individual characteristic…on a little card. These are not dead cards, quite to the contrary, they prove later on that they come to life when the cards are sorted at a rate of 25,000 per hour according to certain characteristics. These characteristics are grouped like the organs of our cultural body, and they will be calculated and determined with the help of our tabulating machine.”

On the surface, it may seem like the story of Herman Hollerith and the U.S. census are historical relics, an echo from a bygone era. But this history reveals an uncomfortable and fundamental truth about computer technology. We can thank nativism and the census for helping to bring the computer age into existence. And as the battle over the 2020 census makes clear, the drive to tally up our neighbors, to sort them into categories and turn them into statistics, still carries the seed of our own dehumanization.