When Computers Were Human
David Alan Grier
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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.
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Men—or at any rate the least likely of men—had assumed his place.”23 The mathematicians knew little about his successor, Harry Truman. No one knew how the new president felt about government sponsorship of science or whether he would be able to get the approval of Congress for any ambitious scientific program. The members of the Applied Mathematics Panel were somber when they convened their first meeting after Roosevelt’s death. Warren Weaver was ill, and Thorton Fry held the meeting at Bell.
Pp. 151–66. Dantzig, George, “Origins of the Simplex Method,” in Nash, pp. 141–51. Dantzig, George, “Reminiscences about the Origins of Linear Programming,” Operations Research Letters, vol. 1, no. 2, April 1982, pp. 43–48. Daston, Loraine, “Enlightenment Calculations,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 24, no. 1, August 1994, pp. 182–202. Davis, Charles Henry, The Coast Survey of the United States, Cambridge, Mass., Metcalf and Company, 1849. Davis, Charles Henry, Remarks on an American Prime.
For Women, 209, 221, 260 Indiana University, 183, 184, 195 Industrial Revolution, 5, 311 Institute for Advanced Study, 205, 217, 245, 266, 285, 292, 295 Institute for Numerical Analysis, 298–306, 309–12; computing office of, 301–4; and political turmoil, 304–10 Institute for the Exact Sciences. See Newcomb, Simon insurance, 4, 44, 47, 60, 66, 93, 102, 124, 164, 237, 278, 318. See also actuaries International Business Machines, 164, 166, 188, 190, 192–94, 226, 227, 233, 244, 247, 267, 270,.
The German army, so that no government had any interest in building a laboratory for 64,000 computers, 6,400 computers, or even 640 computers. Only one facility approached Richardson’s vision of a computing compound with houses and lakes and trees. It employed but forty-two computers and was located in a Maryland town named Aberdeen. CHAPTER TEN War Production This was a strange and mysterious war zone but I suppose that it was quite well run and grim compared to other wars. … Ernest.
Of scientific research that could be traced back to the original telephone of Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1921) in the 1870s. Company scientists studied a variety of problems that were related to telephone services. Chemists studied new materials for insulating wires; physicists looked at the propagation of radio waves; and statisticians evaluated different designs for operator stations. The computing division was an offspring of the transmission section, the group that was working to develop.