At the beginning of April, all Americans will be asked to participate in a special event that takes places once every ten years: the census. The nation will be examining and tabulating the sizes and conditions of each American household as it existed on April 1. Questions will be asked about age, occupation, number of children, education levels, wages, ethnicity, home ownership, veterans status, and languages spoken at home. For the first time, Americans will also be able to complete the census online. The census, required by the Constitution, is part of a tradition dating back many centuries around the world.


Ancient Egypt was the first known nation to conduct a regular census. Officials of the pharaoh, starting around 1800 BC, required an annual counting of every man in Egypt as well as a listing of occupations. Around 1350 BC, Israelite officials conducted a count of the military-age men, listed by tribe. The Book of Numbers, from the Old Testament and the fourth book of the Jewish Torah, was a compilation of this census data. The Romans were also famous for conducting a census, mostly for tax purposes. The Incans of South America also conducted a periodic census in the years before they fell to Spain in the sixteenth century.


When the United States Constitution was ratified in 1788, it required a census be conducted every ten years so that representation in Congress, determining whether states gain or lose seats. The federal government also uses census data to determine what services are needed in particular communities and does out funding from various funds based on those numbers.


Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson coordinated the first census in 1790. Between 1790 and 1840, the census was conducted by United States Marshals and their deputies. In 1790, it took 650 enumerators to count a population of 3,929,214 in the 13 states at a cost of $44,000. The largest city was New York City with only 33,131 residents, compared to more than 8 million by 2010. Philadelphia was the second-largest city with a population of 28,522, with Boston third at 18,320.


In 1840, what became the Census Bureau was formed. Instead of federal marshals, the census would then be conducted by census employees hired temporarily to go door-to-door and ask who lived in a residence, occupations, ages, and state or country of birth.


Historians routinely use census data to learn more about lesser-known individuals and how they lived as well as for statistical purposes. For example, the 1860 census is often used to detail which men joined Civil War units and their occupations, family sizes, and relative net worths were before the war started in 1861. Historians trace where these individuals were before the war and afterward. It can also be used to look in more detail about who was moving from one part of the country to another in the years of rapid movement westward. This has also made the census an invaluable tool for genealogists.


Many important technological changes emerged because of the census. The 1880 census recorded a population of 50,189,209, an increase of more than 30% from 1870. But with so many people and so much information coming in, it took years to compile all the different sets of data by hand. Herman Hollerith, a professor of engineering, began working for the Census Bureau in 1884. He soon devised a system of adding and sorting information more quickly by using a punch card system with the numbers being recorded on dials, using the dial recorded invented by Alexander Dey in 1888. Hollerith’s electric tabulating machine reduced the work for the 1890 census by up to two years, a monumental task given that the 1890 count listed 62,979,766 Americans.


Hollerith’s work made the Census Bureau the first computerized government agency. In 1911, Dey and Hollerith came together with two other inventors to form a new company to build devices that could make large calculations quickly. The company soon became known as International Business Machines, or IBM.


In 1903, the Census Bureau was placed under the control of what became the Department of Commerce. Since 1920, the Census Bureau has also conducted a census of manufacturers every two years and a census of agriculture every ten years. This data helps the government and business leaders alike examine the status of business across the nation and has been used to determine community grants and funding.


Census data dating to the 1790 census is available in printed forms at libraries and now online through the Census Bureau though some of the work has been lost. The original census forms are released every 72 years, allowing families and others to look at the information in detail. The last census released was the 1940 count in 2012. The 1950 forms will be released in 2022.


The 2010 census recorded a population of 308,745,538 and noted that the population was still moving westward. More than 635,000 enumerators participated at a cost of $12.9 billion. The totals for the 2020 census will be calculated quickly. Though the Census Bureau performs small samplings of communities within the ten-year period and other data can yield a fair approximation of the population, the official count through the census and the demographic data available will have much to say about a nation still changing and growing more than two centuries after its first census.


Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at drkenbridges@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.