The Roots of Progress

Indignation in response to the 1890 census

In reading about the development of technology, I keep an eye out for changes in society as well. I commented recently that we don’t seem to celebrate major achievements as much anymore. But it’s not just technology that Americans used to view differently. It’s growth of all kinds.

The book Computer: A History of the Information Machine tells the story of the 1890 census. It was the first census to be computed, not by hand, but with tabulating machines, developed by Herman Hollerith. On August 16, 1890, the grand total was announced: the population of the United States was 62,622,250.

“But”, it says, “this was not what the allegedly fastest-growing growing nation in the world wanted to hear.” It quotes a contemporary account in a periodical, The Electrical Engineer, from 1891 (emphasis added):

The statement by Mr. Porter [the census director] that the population of this great republic was only 62,622,250 sent into spasms of indignation a great many people who had made up their minds that the dignity of the republic could only be supported on a total of 75,000,000. Hence there was a howl, not of “deep-mouthed welcome,” but of frantic disappointment.

The book continues:

The press loved the story. In an article headlined “Useless Machines” the Boston Herald roasted Porter and Hollerith; “Slip Shod Work Has Spoiled the Census,” exclaimed the New York Herald; and the other papers soon took up the story.

“Spasms of indignation” because population growth was too low for “the dignity of the republic”. Americans were proud of being the fastest-growing country. Today, in contrast, people fear overpopulation, and the general slowing of world population growth is generally considered to be good news.

Something changed in American attitudes in the last 100+ years, not just toward technology or the economy as such, but more fundamentally toward growth itself.

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