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Early Census Processing and the Seaton Device

Seaton Device
An 1880 version of the "Seaton Device."
Published in W.R. Merriam, "The Evolution of American
Census-Taking," Century Magazine 65, 1903.

Census officials have struggled to quickly and accurately process and tabulate census information since the first enumeration. From the 1790 census until the 1840 census, enumerators (in those days, assistant U.S. Marshals) collected information about the population in household units. Members of households were tallied based on their age, gender, and race. Clerks then hand-counted the tallies on each questionnaire sheet for each demographic category.

In 1850, census forms began collecting information on individuals. As the census form became more complicated, tallying census results became increasingly difficult. Census clerks still tabulated census data by hand, but began using increasingly complicated "tally sheets" to keep track of running totals for both enumeration districts and demographic traits.

In 1872, Chief Clerk of the Census Charles Seaton invented a simple machine that made tabulating census data easier by keeping the lines on large tallying sheets isolated and organized. The Census Office purchased Seaton's device and used it to finish the 1870 census. Seaton served as superintendent of the 1880 census, during which his device was used again.

Even with the Seaton device, the 1880 census took nearly the entire decade to tabulate and publish. Census data had become too extensive to be effectively counted by hand. Luckily, a technological advancement in data processing was on the horizon.

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: December 08, 2021