100 Years Ago: Punch Cards and the Census

Innovation and discovery as chronicled in past issues of Scientific American


RADIATION— “What should the citizen conclude about ionizing radiation? Ionizing radiation has always been with us and will be for all foreseeable time. Our genetic system is probably well adjusted by natural selection to normal background radiation. Added radiation will increase the frequency of mutations; most of these will be harmful. Exposure to radiation in large amounts will increase malignant disease; small amounts may possibly do the same. In view of these potentially harmful effects every reasonable effort should be made to reduce the levels of ionizing radiation to which man is exposed to the lowest levels that can reasonably be attained. As to fallout from nuclear-weapons tests, the citizen will conclude that it contributes in a small way to world-wide levels of radiation. For this reason alone the tests should be discontinued. —George W. Beadle”

CENSUS— “The counting at the end of each decade of every man, woman, and child in the United States is one of the biggest undertakings the government is called upon to assume. To facilitate counting, machines will be used invented by Mr. James Powers, a mechanical expert of the Census Bureau, for use in the thirteenth census, which were successfully tried in the recent Cuban Census and now in use in the Division of Vital Statistics. The mechanical method for counting the census requires two types of machines. The keynote of the system, however, is a punched card, which contains the data collected by the enumerators, who travel from house to house in every nook and corner of the land. The data include the nature and extent of our industries, and the amount of our wealth.”

HENRY HUDSON’S 300TH— “The  ship ‘Half Moon’ set sail from Amsterdam April 4th, 1609, with a crew of eighteen Dutch and English sailors. On September 3rd, the ‘Half Moon’ let go her anchor inside of Sandy Hook (New Jersey). The week was spent exploring the bay with a small boat, and ‘they found a good entrance between two headlands’ (The Narrows) and thus entered on the 12th of September ‘as fine a river as can be found.’ When the replica of Henry Hudson’s ‘Half Moon’ was lifted by the floating crane at the Brooklyn navy yard from the deck of the ‘Soestdyk,’ on which she was brought over from Holland, and lowered into the water, there was a general expression of surprise at her diminutive appearance; for she was no larger than a small harbor tug.”

WORMS— “The common earthworm, though apt to be despised and trodden on, is really a useful creature. According to Mr. [Charles] Darwin, they give a kind of under tillage to the land, performing the same below ground that the spade does above for the garden, and the plow for arable soil. Fields which have been overspread with lime, burnt marl, or cinder, become, in time, covered by finely-divided soil. This result, usually attributed by farmers to the ‘working down’ of these materials, is really due to the action of earthworms. Mr. Darwin says, ‘A field manured with marl has been covered, in the course of 80 years, with a bed of earth averaging 13 inches in thickness.’”

COTTON MARKET— “The ‘crop year’ for cotton has just closed, and it has been somewhat eventful. The previous year of the financial panic had passed with a very small consumption, leaving large stocks of goods in the hands of merchants and considerable supplies of raw materials with the manufacturers. Returning ease in the money market has been accompanied by abundant crops, cheap food, low rates for transportation, and a large consumption of goods, promising to absorb the whole of the crop. Up to January, purchases at home and abroad were very large, at improving prices.”

This article was originally published with the title "Radiation Punched Cards Earthworms."

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