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The Social Security Number, A Biography: Part 1


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My grandfather on my mother’s side is named Joseph. His son is also named Joseph. Not Joseph Junior. Not Joseph II. Just Joseph. They’re both just Joseph [Last Name], which sometimes makes traveling with them a headache. Not long after 9/11, the lot of us went on vacation together and got held up in security whenever the TSA took issue with the fact that two different guys with the same name were booked for the same flight.

This is the kind of issue that the Social Security Administration was hoping to avoid when it began to track the earning histories of U.S. workers and determine their Social Security entitlement and benefit levels in the early 1930s. Names on their own, or partnered with addresses, wouldn’t work as identifiers for people when guys like my grandfather passed on their names to their sons, but neglected to tack on a “Junior.” While that sort of situation might not be common, how many unrelated Joe Smiths have you met in your life? In a 5-second web search, I found 4,513 in the U.S., and that probably doesn’t cover all of them. What’s more, there’s the problem of people changing their names and moving from address to address.

Some government agencies like the War Department and the Veterans Administration used fingerprints to ID people, but fingerprinting is associated with being arrested and booked in the public mind, and the SSA decided that people weren’t going to have it. Eventually, they hit upon the idea of using numbers as unique identifiers, and the Social Security Number was born.

Figuring out the Format

Initially, the number was going to consist of three alphabetic characters and five numeric characters. Only two companies at the time manufactured tabulating machines that used alphabetic characters, though, and the federal government had previously gone after them under antitrust legislation for dividing the market between them. The SSA didn’t want to turn around and give them government business, so a new, letter-free numbering scheme had to be worked out.

They considered a few different options and settled on a 9-digit number consisting of a 3-digit geographic code, a 2-digit age indicator and a 4-digit serial number. The 2-digit code was to represent the year that number’s owner reached the retirement age, and after that, their number could be recycled. That plan was scrapped when someone suggested that tying the number to age would encourage people to falsify their age when applying for a number.

In the summer of 1936, the SSA finalized the 9-digit number scheme, with the fourth and fifth digits acting as a “group number” that would be assigned in a specific sequence and allowed for the pre-numbering of registration forms.

SSN Structure

From then on, the SSN consisted of three parts: area number, group number and serial number.

The first three digits are the area number, which is assigned by geographic region. Area numbers were assigned to each state based on the anticipated need for SSNs to be assigned in them. The numbers were generally doled out in ascending order beginning with the Northeast states (but not with the most northeast of them, as we’ll learn soon) and then moving south and west—so, theoretically, a person’s number could give the SSA some information about where that person lived, enabling them to track geographic trends in benefit distribution. This never really worked out for them.

At first, the area numbers were issued to local post offices—the SSA didn’t have their own field offices yet—to assign to people, but some large companies with multiple offices, branches or stores across the country had all of their employees send their SSN applications to their national headquarters for central processing and mailing. If you worked at a bank branch in California, but the home office was in New York, your number wound up not reflecting your place of residence and didn’t tell the SSA anything useful. Later, the SSA started assigning SSNs centrally from their Baltimore office based on the ZIP code of the mailing address people put on their applications. This didn’t work out either, since someone’s mailing address doesn’t necessarily reflect where they live or work.

Some exceptions to the geographic distribution were made. Numbers 700-728, for example, weren’t assigned by region, but were reserved for railroad workers until 1963. Numbers 587-595 went to Mississippi and Florida, out of order, after the two states used up their initial runs of numbers. SSNs with the area number 000 or 666 have never, and likely won’t ever, be assigned.

Last year, the SSA decided to do away with the geographical significance of the first block of digits, and is no longer assigning them to specific states.

The second group of digits is the group number. Contrary to conspiracy theory and urban legend, these don’t reflect racial or ethnic groupings. The “group” just refers to the numerical subgroups into which the area numbers are broken down. The reason for doing this was so that early SSA administrators could break down their files into smaller, more manageable, subgroups, which allowed them to find information more easily. These groups range from 01 to 99 and are issued, within each area number, in this order: odd group numbers from 01 to 09; even numbers 10 to 98; even numbers 02 to 08; and odd numbers 11 to 99.

The last four digits are the serial number, a straight numerical series of numbers from 0001–9999 within each group.

With the number scheme figured out, the SSA was ready to start assigning numbers to the public. We’ll find out who the first social security number went to tomorrow.

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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History
The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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