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From Lincoln to Obama, How Crowds at the Capitol Have Been Counted – NYTimes/Tim Wallace

January 20, 2017

USA

People have descended on Washington to witness, celebrate and protest since the cornerstone was laid on the Capitol building in 1793. But estimating the size of those crowds is not easy, and sometimes crowd-counting can be fraught with controversy. Here’s how the tools for counting have changed over the last 150 years.

Lincoln’s Crowd

According to The New York Times, Washington was “thronged” with the largest crowd the city had ever seen for President Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration in 1861. Writing about the event, The Times estimated that “many thousand citizens assembled in the grounds, filling the square and open space, and perching on every tree, fence or stone affording a convenient point from which to see or hear.”

An analysis by Dr. Keith Still and Marcel Altenburg estimated that 7,350 people are in this view:

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“Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln, March 4, 1861.” Original housed at The Library of Congress. Analysis by Dr. Keith Still and Marcel Altenburg, Manchester Metropolitan University.

“Many thousand” is a rough estimate, but even today, crowd-counting is an inexact science. Without turnstiles to provide a precise count, crowd safety and crowd dynamics specialists create estimates using a series of different methods, analyzing images and videos of the crowd.One common technique is to calculate the area a crowd occupies and estimate its density in different locations. Then, like guessing the number of jellybeans in a jar, the calculation is based on how many people could fit into the space they occupy.

To demonstrate this, we asked Professor Keith Still from Manchester Metropolitan University in England to analyze this image of Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration.

He and his team used Google Earth to estimate the image’s field of view (about 150,000 square feet) and took into consideration average adult build and range of the unamplified human voice to determine the likely densities of people in the photo. Their result: about 7,350 people are visible in the photo.

Clambering for a View

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The first inauguration of Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Original housed at The Library of Congress.

Climbing the Capitol for a view was common at inaugurations in the early 1900s. At President Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration in 1913, The Times noted that “on the roof of the vast building there must have been fully 5,000 people, the greater number being women who daringly sat or stood on the edge of the sloping roof.”

A crowd estimate of 100,000 people was reported by The Times for Wilson’s first inauguration, a figure reached with the assumption that “in the ordinary American crowd, fully 8,000 persons can stand on an acre of ground” while “making all necessary allowance for the shrubbery” and trees.

Eisenhower From Above

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President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first inauguration as seen from a United States Navy Blimp. Source: Associated Press

The best images for estimating crowds will be at peak times, taken from the sky above the crowd. This shot of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first inauguration in 1953 was taken from a United States Navy blimp. Because of seating at the ceremony, the crowd in this photo was distributed more evenly than that in the Lincoln photo.

Washington police estimated a crowd of 750,000 attended the inaugural festivities in 1953.

A Controversial Count

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The 1995 Million Man March Paul Hosefros/The New York Times

The Million Man March in October of 1995 drew one of the largest crowds ever assembled in Washington. The Nation of Islam estimated that 1.5 million to 2.0 million people attended their event, but the National Park Service estimated only 400,000.

Controversy ensued and organizers threatened a lawsuit, setting the tone for bragging rights among future organizers. Weighing in on the dispute, Farouk El-Baz of Boston University adapted a satellite remote sensing technique used to count dunes in a desert and trees in a forest to calculate a new estimate: 669,771 to 1,004,656.

This counting conflict resulted in a 1997 appropriations bill, which forbade the National Park Service from spending federal money to count crowds at large events in Washington.

Promise Keepers Rally

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The 1997 Promise Keepers Rally Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

In October 1997, hundreds of thousands of men swarmed the National Mall for a Promise Keepers Rally. Times coverage described the event as a “religious revival rally that stretched a mile from the Capitol past the Washington Monument.”

The photo above, and others like it, reentered political discourse in 2009 when supporters of a recent Tea Party rally circulated it on the internet as a photo of their event.

Obama’s Crowds

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President Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 as seen from space. Satellite image by DigitalGlobe via Google Earth

This satellite image captured on the day of President Obama’s first inauguration shows swarms of people jostling for a glimpse of the historic event. Beyond the ticketed area, thick crowds were pressed against barriers. On the lawn of the Washington Monument, more than a mile from the stage, a huge number gathered for a glimpse of two screens set up for remote viewing. The crowd estimate for that day was 1.8 million.

Using Satellites and Satire

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The 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear Satellite image by DigitalGlobe via Google Earth

Since President Obama’s first inauguration, satellite images of crowds have become more common. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” in 2010 was described in The Times as “part circus, part satire and part parade.”

As seen in the image above, people came out in droves. There was no official crowd estimate, but Judy McGrath, an executive at Viacom’s MTV Networks unit at the time, said she had been told by the Parks Service that there were “well over 200,000 people” at the rally. Mr. Colbert’s estimate: 6 billion.

FRIDAY, JANUARY 20, 2017. 12:35 p.m. [GMT]

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