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When Computers Were Human

When Computers Were Human

David Alan Grier
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 424
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  • Book Info
    When Computers Were Human
    Book Description:

    Before Palm Pilots and iPods, PCs and laptops, the term "computer" referred to the people who did scientific calculations by hand. These workers were neither calculating geniuses nor idiot savants but knowledgeable people who, in other circumstances, might have become scientists in their own right. When Computers Were Human represents the first in-depth account of this little-known, 200-year epoch in the history of science and technology.

    Beginning with the story of his own grandmother, who was trained as a human computer, David Alan Grier provides a poignant introduction to the wider world of women and men who did the hard computational labor of science. His grandmother's casual remark, "I wish I'd used my calculus," hinted at a career deferred and an education forgotten, a secret life unappreciated; like many highly educated women of her generation, she studied to become a human computer because nothing else would offer her a place in the scientific world.

    The book begins with the return of Halley's comet in 1758 and the effort of three French astronomers to compute its orbit. It ends four cycles later, with a UNIVAC electronic computer projecting the 1986 orbit. In between, Grier tells us about the surveyors of the French Revolution, describes the calculating machines of Charles Babbage, and guides the reader through the Great Depression to marvel at the giant computing room of the Works Progress Administration.

    When Computers Were Human is the sad but lyrical story of workers who gladly did the hard labor of research calculation in the hope that they might be part of the scientific community. In the end, they were rewarded by a new electronic machine that took the place and the name of those who were, once, the computers.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4936-9
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. INTRODUCTION A Grandmother’s Secret Life
    (pp. 1-8)

    It began with a passing remark, a little comment, a few words not understood, a confession of a secret life. On a cold winter evening, now many years ago, I was sharing a dinner with my grandmother. I was home from graduate school, full of myself and confident of the future. We sat at a small table in her kitchen, eating foods that had been childhood favorites and talking about cousins and sisters and aunts and uncles. There was much to report: marriages and great-grandchildren, new homes and jobs. As we cleared the dishes, she became quiet for a moment,...

  2. Part I: Astronomy and the Division of Labor: 1682–1880

    • CHAPTER ONE The First Anticipated Return: Halley’s Comet 1758
      (pp. 11-25)

      Our story will begin with a comet, a new method of mathematics, and a seemingly intractable problem. The comet is the one that appeared over Europe in August 1682, the comet that has since been named for the English astronomer Edmund Halley (1656–1742). This comet emerged in the late summer sky and, according to observers at Cambridge University, hung like a beacon with a long, shimmering tail above the chapel of King’s College. To that age, comets were mysterious visitors, phenomena that appeared at irregular intervals with no obvious explanation. Their origins, substance, and purpose were matters of pure...

    • CHAPTER TWO The Children of Adam Smith
      (pp. 26-45)

      “The superior genius and sagacity of Sir Isaac Newton,” wrote the philosopher Adam Smith, “made the most happy, and, we may now say, the greatest and most admirable improvement that was ever made in philosophy.” Smith turned his generous praise on Newton’s calculus and stated that new discoveries would come from “more laborious and accurate calculations from these principles.”¹ At least one scholar has found Smith’s praise insincere and has suggested that the philosopher distrusted any science that rested “primarily upon mathematics, rather than easily visualized phenomena, common to the mind of all men.”² Smith was more interested in things...

    • CHAPTER THREE The Celestial Factory: Halley’s Comet 1835
      (pp. 46-54)

      In his novel Hard Times, Charles Dickens described an astronomical observatory “made without any windows” and an astronomer who “should arrange the starry universe solely by pen, ink, and paper.” He used this description, which sounded more like the computing room of the Nautical Almanac than the staff of an observatory, as a metaphor for a factory. In this factory, the director “had no need to cast an eye upon the teeming myriads of human beings around him,” just as the director of almanac computations had no need to watch the stars each night, “but could settle all their destinies...

    • CHAPTER FOUR The American Prime Meridian
      (pp. 55-71)

      The methods of computation migrated to North America with the navigators who guided the ships across the North Atlantic and the surveyors who delineated the European claims upon the continent. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Greenwich Observatory and the British Nautical Almanac served as sources of computational techniques for those traveling west. The observatory had employed Charles Mason before he departed with Jeremiah Dixon to survey the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland.¹ One of the almanac computers, Joshua Moore, emigrated to the United States and corresponded with President Thomas Jefferson on subjects mathematical.² The British Nautical Almanac itself...

    • CHAPTER FIVE A Carpet for the Computing Room
      (pp. 72-88)

      “I was surprised to find how quickly one could acquire the stolidity of the soldier,” wrote a computer at the Naval Observatory.¹ The observatory, from its hill on the northern bank of the Potomac River, had an unobstructed view of Confederate territory. Directly across the water sat the plantation of General Robert E. Lee, abandoned by its owner and occupied by Union troops. The navy insisted that the computers and astronomers, most of them civilians, be trained as an artillery crew. The staff dutifully reported to the ballistics range at the Washington Navy Yard, where they learned how to charge...

  3. Part II: Mass Production and New Fields of Science: 1880–1930

    • CHAPTER SIX Looking Forward, Looking Backward: Machinery 1893
      (pp. 91-101)

      On a typical workday in 1881 or 1882, Rhoda Saunders would begin her calculations in the Harvard Observatory computing room by picking up her pen, uncorking her bottles of ink, one black and one red, and opening her computing book. All of these objects would have been familiar to Edmund Halley in the seventeenth century or Nicole-Reine Lepaute in the eighteenth, but each had been subtly changed by industrialization. Saunders’s pen had a preformed steel nib that easily outlasted the hand-cut point of a goose quill. Her bottles of ink were commercially produced and varied little from batch to batch....

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Darwin’s Cousins
      (pp. 102-118)

      In 1894, when the playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) needed to invent a character that captured the challenges faced by the young women of his age, he made her a mathematician. Vivian Warren, the central character of the play Mrs. Warren’s Profession, is a graduate of Newnham College, a women’s school at Cambridge. Such colleges were still new in the 1890s and were trying to find their way amidst the older and wealthier men’s schools. One measure of success for the women’s schools was the scores of their students on the Tripos, the Cambridge mathematical honors exam. In 1890,...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT Breaking from the Ellipse: Halley’s Comet 1910
      (pp. 119-125)

      “Before the 1835 return [of Halley’s Comet] there were at least five independent computations of the orbit,” complained the English astronomer Andrew Claude de la Cherois Crommelin (1865–1939), “and it is difficult to understand why an equal amount of interest is not shown in the approaching return.”¹ As Crommelin well knew, astronomers had no pressing questions that would be answered by calculating the comet’s orbit. Newton’s analysis of the solar system had been accepted by astronomers as the laws of celestial motions. The contradictions to these laws, which were being explored by Albert Einstein, offered no idea that might...

    • CHAPTER NINE Captains of Academe
      (pp. 126-144)

      During the last days of July 1914, in the final hours of peace, the European powers positioned themselves for the impending conflict. Germany prepared to march its army through the supposedly neutral country of Belgium. The French hurried to throw their military might between the advancing troops and Paris. The English, perceiving that they had interests on the Continent, organized an expeditionary force to send into the fray. Karl Pearson, the great admirer of German culture, found himself caught on the European side of the English Channel. He hurried home to London on the first day of the conflict and...

    • CHAPTER TEN War Production
      (pp. 145-158)

      By the summer of 1918, the whole European war seemed to be packed into the city of Washington, D.C., an area barely ten miles on a side. The army tested ordnance in the city’s northwest quadrant while the navy built guns in the southeast. Residents rented any available room to the new war workers who arrived each day by train. Downtown, entire government bureaus were squeezed into offices that once had held three employees, or two, or even just one. Outside, construction crews labored to create new buildings on the one large, unoccupied piece of land in the center of...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN Fruits of the Conflict: Machinery 1922
      (pp. 159-174)

      The armistice left the United States with a vast pool of equipment, energy, and vision. Beginning in the winter of 1919, train after train arrived at the Aberdeen Proving Ground with field artillery pieces that had been built for a final offensive into Germany. The proving ground staff unloaded the weapons, one by one, and towed them to the large fields where Oswald Veblen had conducted his first range tests. They placed the guns in long, straight lines to await the next war to end all wars. As the army was starting a period of slow decline, they sat in...

  4. Part III: Professional Computers and an Independent Discipline: 1930–1964

    • CHAPTER TWELVE The Best of Bad Times
      (pp. 177-197)

      Spring 1930. It was the first vernal season of the Great Depression, though the economic collapse was not yet potent enough to touch the annual meeting of the National Research Council. The council was the visible symbol of the First World War’s scientific legacy. Formed to coordinate research for the American military effort, it had grown in stature and influence during the 1920s. As part of the National Academy of Sciences, the council occupied a marble-clad building on the National Mall. The entrance to the building stood across the street from the memorial to Abraham Lincoln. Visitors to the facility...

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN Scientific Relief
      (pp. 198-219)

      Malcolm Morrow (1906–1982) was the faceless bureaucrat of computation, the government worker who created the largest human computing group of the 1930s but left little record of himself. He lived in a working-class district of Washington, D.C., only a few blocks from the original Naval Observatory and the building that had once housed Simon Newcomb’s Nautical Almanac Office.¹ He held jobs in several of the New Deal agencies and eventually settled into the executive office of the Work Projects Administration (WPA)² as an assistant statistician. His title gives us little information about his mathematical ability, as the WPA employed...

    • CHAPTER FOURTEEN Tools of the Trade: Machinery 1937
      (pp. 220-232)

      When Matilda Persily came to work at the Mathematical Tables Project, she followed a little ritual to prepare her tools for the day. She was part of the special computing group, one of the few who regularly used an adding machine. Her machine was a old Sunstrand, an inexpensive device that had ten keys on the top and a crank on the right side. She would first add a few meaningless numbers while sharing a moment of conversation with other members of the staff. As she talked, she would listen for the sound of grit in the gears and try...

    • CHAPTER FIFTEEN Professional Ambition
      (pp. 233-255)

      Like the adding machines of the 1880s, the calculators of Stibitz, Atanasoff, and Aiken coincided with a world’s fair. This fair, which opened in the spring of 1939, was hosted by New York City. “It is arranged,” wrote the author H. G. Wells, “to assemble before us what can be done with human life today and what we shall almost certainly do with it . . . in the near future.” After pausing for a digression, he added, “It is a promotion show.”¹ Like the World’s Columbian Exposition, now almost half a century in the past, the Long Island fair...

    • CHAPTER SIXTEEN The Midtown New York Glide Bomb Club
      (pp. 256-275)

      The winter of 1943 marked the start of the imperial age of the human computer, the era of great growth for scientific computing laboratories. It seemed as if all the combatants discovered a need for organized computing that winter. A German group started preparing mathematical tables at the Technische Hochschule in Darmstadt.¹ Japan, which had received material from the Mathematical Tables Project through 1942, formed a computing group in Tokyo.² The British government operated computing groups in Bath, Wynton, Cambridge, and London.³ Within the United States, there were at least twenty computing organizations at work that winter, including laboratories in...

    • CHAPTER SEVENTEEN The Victor’s Share
      (pp. 276-297)

      Sometime in 1944, computers became “girls.” The University of Pennsylvania hired “girl computers”; Warren Weaver started calling Applied Mathematics Panel computers “girls”; Oswald Veblen, who had once led a team of computing men, used the term “girls”; George Stibitz began ranking calculating projects in “girl-years” of effort.¹ One member of the Applied Mathematics Panel defined the unit “kilogirl,” a term that presumably referred to a thousand hours of computing labor, though in at least one letter it suggested an Amazonian team of computers.² L. J. Comrie, in an article entitled “Careers for Girls,” stated that girls “can be made proficient...

    • CHAPTER EIGHTEEN I Alone Am Left to Tell Thee
      (pp. 298-317)

      Even though the final days of the Mathematical Tables Project were filled with drama and emotion, and even though they engaged an unusual cast of characters, they were nonetheless part of a conventional scientific decision. Two scientists, each seeing a different direction for a project, shared a common claim over a single pool of resources. One of the two, John Curtiss, ultimately prevailed and steered the course of the Mathematical Tables Project to his liking. At the end, no one questioned the credentials of the loser, Arnold Lowan, or thought that he was unfit to lead a computing group or...

  5. EPILOGUE Final Passage: Halley’s Comet 1986
    (pp. 318-322)

    The computations for the 1986 return of Halley’s comet began shortly after Gertrude Blanch retired from scientific life in 1967. Though she was not the last professional human computer, her departure coincided with the final days of many computing offices. The National Bureau of Standards, now identified as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, closed its Computational Laboratory and reassigned the few remaining veterans of the Mathematical Tables Project to other divisions. The American Nautical Almanac moved from punched card equipment to electronic computers. Observatories were either acquiring their own small computers or purchasing the services of larger machines....

  6. Appendix: Recurring Characters, Institutions, and Concepts
    (pp. 325-332)
  7. Research Notes and Bibliography
    (pp. 373-400)