Curious History

Curious History

Computing By Gaslamp: Ellis Island Tech


Immigration has driven technological growth of the United States since our founding.  Some of America’s greatest inventors and investors were immigrants.  But over a hundred years ago, the cutting edge of tech, the ENIAC of its time, was built for the Department of Commerce and used by the Immigration department. In that era of gas lamps and steam trains, electric tabulators launched the computer revolution. Let’s explore the tech roots that changed the face of our nation.

People and Pen and Paper

In the earliest days of the Republic, regulating immigration was not a priority for the Federal Government. Eventually, the Federal government took active involvement in the immigration process in the late 19th century primarily to exclude some types of immigrants, and to collect taxes on the others.  They focused their attention on the high volume shipping ports teeming with new arrivals.

At the turn of the Century, when Ellis Island first opened, the passenger manifests of trans-Atlantic ships would be reviewed by treasury officials greeting new arrivals.  At the peak of immigration into the US, pen and paper and a personal interview were the low-tech tools used to welcome millions.  Thousands of immigrants a day were processed thusly.

And that was it. Once an immigrant entered the country they were on their own. Naturalization was left to local and state courts around the nation, who each had their own processes and paper records.

An Electric Tabulating System

The Federal government did not have a mandate to manage immigration, but the Census is required in the Constitution.  Processing and storing vast amounts of data was a cumbersome task at the end of the 19thCentury.  The results of the 1880 US Census took eight years to compile!  A confluence of events changed all that starting in 1890.

law2The son of German immigrants, Herman Hollerith grew up in the state of New York.  He studied and taught engineering, and whilst teaching at MIT in 1882 he tinkered with mechanical tabulation using punched cards.

Using electricity, electro-magnetic counters, and completed circuits, Hollerith’s device used punched holes in non-conductive cards to tally data.  His punched card reader used cardstock with holes in specific locations to indicate bits of data to a counter that would click when triggered. To support his invention, he invented an automatic card feeder, a keyboard card punch, a programmable plug board.

Hollerith used his new electric tabulation invention at the Department of Commerce to tally the 1890 census. Using punched cards and the electric tabulator, the 1890 census was tallied in just a year.  A fraction of the time of the previous census.

In 1903, Congress transferred the Bureau of Immigration to the newly created (now-defunct) Department of Commerce and Labor.  The timely census data gave Immigration officials a comprehensive look at who was arriving and from where, all in a centralized data source.

Hollerith’s firm merged with others to eventually become IBM under Thomas J. Watson in 1924. Computing continued to advance, driven by business, science, and military, but the punched card system and its descendants remained adequate for tabulating and storing data.

Centralized computer processing and sharing would not become a necessity for the Immigration department for decades.  The punched card system was so integrated in to business and government that IBM supported punched cards and machines into the mid 1970s. Today, paper records are still an important part of the immigration process, but after September 2001 data has been networked for better access and communication within Homeland Security, which now manages Immigration.

Andy Grove, Sergei Brin, Vinod Dham, and thousands of other immigrants have driven tech forward.  Processed by the descendants of Hollerith’s machines, the new generations of tech innovators pushed the United States into the future.

Visawolf is an immigration law firm based in California that blends the latest technology with personal service to assist with visa, immigration, and naturalization cases.


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