(+) 1960 U.S. Census Myths and Facts

The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman. 

The U.S. Census is very much in the news these days, and for good reasons. The final specifications for the 2020 census are still being defined and are frequently in the news. It reminds me of the controversy about the 1960 U.S. Census.

For years I have heard stories about the 1960 U.S. Census. The stories vary a bit on each telling but usually say something like, “The 1960 U.S. Census was stored on a computer media for which there no longer was any equipment to read it. The census data has been lost because of the change in technology.”

I always doubted that story. I was just starting my career in computers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and I remember well the tape drives of that era. I spent many hours repairing those half-inch and three-quarter inch tape drives that weighed 800 pounds each! I think I still could disassemble and reassemble a Honeywell 204B-9 half-inch tape drive while blindfolded. That device was a maze of electronics (without integrated circuits), disk brakes, a big vacuum pump, and numerous solenoids. Those are the tape drives shown in the background of the picture below, showing a Honeywell H-200 computer circa 1970.

I used to install, maintain, and repair those computers on customer sites.

You may note there is no display screen or keyboard on this computer. Operators controlled it by a push-button control panel, as shown here. I used to be very good at manually entering machine code instructions into the computer via those control panels! Unfortunately, there’s not much need for those “skills” today!

Since I am familiar with both the old and the new technologies involved, I decided to investigate the 1960 census story.

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