Early Immigrants Had to Pass This Intelligence Test to Enter America

Illustration for article titled Early Immigrants Had to Pass This Intelligence Test to Enter America

In the early 1900s those yearning to breathe free had a few hurdles to get over once they came to America. One of them was an intelligence test. Here's one of the earliest citizenship tests designed for non-English-speaking people.


People landing at Ellis Island in the early twentieth century were not given the warmest welcome. Before they could get into the country, they had to go through a series of examinations. Most of these examinations were physical. Newly-arrived immigrants were tested for eye infections and tuberculosis. They were also sorted into sick and healthy queues according to their scalp, face, neck, and "gait."

Provided they passed physical inspection, they were given an intelligence test. This test was a challenge to local authorities. Not only did the authorities at Ellis Island not have the resources (or, really, the will) to deal with different languages, they didn't have the time for an extensive test. It wasn't unusual for immigrants to wait two days before they made it through the examining facilities. To keep the line moving, examiners needed an intelligence test that did not rely on language and that could be administered quickly. Doctor Howard Knox came up with a solution.

Have you ever played Simon? Knox's test was like that, only if you messed up, instead of getting buzzed, you were thrown out of a country. Knox lined up four wooden cubes and gestured for the person taking the test to follow his lead. He tapped sequences on the cubes (1 2 3 4 - 1 2 3 4 3 - 1 2 3 4 2 - 1 3 2 4 - 1 3 4 2 3 1). Using these sequences, he reported, he was able to screen 400 "feeble-minded" people out of 4000 "suspected defectives."

Image: Library of Congress

[Via Brain Candy, Howard Andrew Knox and the Origins of Performance Testing on Ellis Island.]


Dr Emilio Lizardo

It is kind of chilling that you could have said that all of this (especially dividing people into "sick" and "healthy" lines) was done for people newly arrived at Auschwitz and I would have believed it.