In the Beginning: A Question of Technology

SMF Census Building engraving

In the world of family history, a key event happened about 200 years ago on August 2, 1790.  It was a big day with enormous, if not shaky, consequences: the day the first census was held in the United States.

The result? On that day, the population of the United States was measured at 3,929,214 people. How long did it take? It took only nine months to complete the census process, especially impressive given the available “technology” of paper, ink, saddles, and candles. Was it accurate? Then Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, and President George Washington both expressed concern over the results: had the country been under-counted? Considering the individual refusal to participate, transportation challenges, and general limitations of the tools used to gather the information, it seems likely that the count was inaccurate. Despite its failings, though, family historians today are grateful for the work done then and since.

Other facts, including city populations, popped up from the tally. New York City was the largest city in the nation then. The top ten cities included Boston Town, Philadelphia and the Southwark district of Pennsylvania.

The Census occurred in a time of many “firsts”. George Washington, first President of The United States, had presented the first State of the Union Address just months before in January.  The Supreme Court had gathered for the first time in February.

While the actual census numbers are perhaps debatable, a headcount of almost 4 million people at the time was a big number. But the country was ready for expansion and primed for invention. Indeed the following decades witnessed the development of the U.S. Post Office and the creation of the cotton gin. Can you list a few technological advancements that contributed to westward expansion and the beginning of urban development?

Fast Forward 200 Yearsworld globalization

Two hundred years after the first U.S. Census a software engineer in Switzerland named Tim Berners-Lee made a unique proposal to his superiors at CERN, a particle physics laboratory. When it was finally approved and publicized, his idea became better known as the World Wide Web. By late 1990, the first web page had been “served” and was visible to the world.  From 1790 to 1990, technology had moved from the cotton gin to arguably the most powerful communication medium the world has ever known.

Today, it’s not a surprising fact that most Americans use the internet. Among those using the internet are genealogists.  For many of us, utilizing the internet has become an everyday tool. We use websites for research. These websites contain thousands of documents on personal history.  We also communicate via social media and email. Apps such as Saving Memories Forever help us collect and save oral family stories and expand our numbers because they are so easy to use.  Digital photographs also make documentation of everyday life easy to do. National Geographic predicts that Americans will take 105 billion digital photos in 2015.  The quantity of data is no less than stunning. We are preserving history every day, and faster than ever before.

The Fuss about Technology

Just as technology offers advantages, it also presents disadvantages. There is certainly concern over the loss of research skills. And just as George Washington and his peers were concerned with the limitations of his contemporary technology, should we also be concerned? Is there now too much technology?

As a community, genealogists see new resources added online almost daily. Discussions occur regularly about best practices of digital photography, data storage, and online family trees. New organizations are forming, focusing on using only virtual tools to organize, educate, and build their communities. Genealogy-focused blogging –which includes the words you are currently reading- sees incredible increases in numbers each month.  Dare I ask: where does it end?

The answer to that question may never be found. The United States has always been known as a nation of innovation and creativity, and it does appear that counting heads and accessing information has become irreversibly intertwined with technology. Where do you think we are headed? Where do you see the ideal balance?

You Decide

How much will technology play a role in your family history research? There are so many options; the choices are nearly endless. A few of my favorites provided by the government include the US National Archives YouTube channel, the Bureau of Land Management, and the US National Archives Education Facebook page.

Considering the impact technology has had on the development of our country and our record collection processes, I can only look forward with much anticipation as to what is to come.



Baldwin, Jen headshot small


Genealogist Jen Baldwin is the owner of Ancestral Journeys, specializing in the Rocky Mountain Corridor. She writes for a variety of publications, speaks regionally on genealogy related topics, is the creator and co-host of #genchat on Twitter, and owns Conference Keeper. She also is co-creator and Co-Chair of the NextGen Genealogy Network and is the Director of Operations for The In-Depth Genealogist. You can connect with Jen on her website or on social media.

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About Saving Memories Forever is an affordable online system that helps people record, share, and save their family stories. It combines a free app for iPhone/iPad devices and Android smartphones with a private website. You can join us as a Free Member to try out the system. Or you can join as a Premium Subscriber where you will have unlimited access to all of the features. Either way, Saving Memories Forever is an easy-to-use system that helps you build a collection of family stories and keeps those stories organized and accessible to family members. Our Blog is a celebration of family and life in general. Our posts offer helpful tips and insights that will help you on your way to preserving your family's oral tradition.

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