Home / Opinion / Columns /  When computers actually felt nervous about what they did

As I sat down to write this article on my laptop computer, I got reminded of a fascinating paper ( ) by Lorraine Daston, of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin. She evocatively talks about Edwin Dunkin, a 17-year-old who started work in August 1838 at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Dunkin and his brother worked under the Astronomer Royal George Biddel Airy, and Daston quotes him: “We were at our posts at 8 am.... I had not been many minutes seated on a highchair before a roomy desk placed on a table in the centre of the Octagon Room, when a huge book was placed before me. ...This large folio book of printed forms was specially arranged for the calculation of the tabular right ascension and north polar distance of the planet Mercury from Lindenau’s Tables. ... After very little instruction from Mr. Thomas, the principal computer in charge, I began to make my first entries with a slow and tremulous hand, doubting whether what I was doing was correct or not. But after a little quiet study of the examples given in the Tables, all this nervousness soon vanished, and... when my day’s work was over, some of the older computers complimented me on the successful progress I had made."

The two boys, working 12 Dickensian hours a day to support their widowed mother, were among the world’s first ‘computers’. Before these became machines, they were human, and their job was to compute and to calculate. Edwin’s father had also been a computer, as he and thousands of others performed astronomical calculations, created actuarial tables for insurance, and tallied accounts for large corporations.

A parallel idea was developed by a French engineer, Gaspard Riche de Prony, who read an essay by Adam Smith, widely regarded as the father of free-market capitalism, on how division of labour could efficiently manufacture pins at scale. Daston talks about how Prony decided to use this concept to create logarithmic tables at the scale of 200,000 logarithms to a minimum of 14 decimal places. He created a pyramid with three classes of people: at the top were a few ‘mathematicians of distinction’ who created formulae to calculate the logarithms, at the next level were a few ‘algebraicists’ who “translated these formulae into numerical forms, that could be computed", and at the bottom were ‘workers’ schooled in basic arithmetic who did millions of calculations. In today’s data-science language, at the top were the architects, then the algorithms, and the computers below. In fact, it was Prony’s project which inspired British mathematician Charles Babbage to try and replace the bottom-of-the-pyramid human computers with a machine, thus creating the Difference Engine, seen by many as the first non-human computer.

Babbage wasn’t alone. French mathematician Blaise Pascal built and flogged his Arithmetic Machine, French businessman Thomas de Colmar was moderately successful with his Arithmometer, the British company Burroughs had its Adding Machine. None of them worked as well, however, as human computers. As Daston writes, they were noisy, expensive, broke down often, and more like “items to adorn a princely cabinet of curiosities" than “workaday tools."

There was one big change however. Increasingly, the computers were women. The reason for this was financial: female labour was cheap. Even women with college degrees and advanced mathematical training were paid far less then men. The most famous women computers were probably those employed by NASA. As Brynn Holland writes in her article ‘Human Computers: The Women of NASA’ ( ), “Barbara Canright joined California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1939. As the first female ‘human computer,’ her job was to calculate anything from how many rockets were needed to make a plane airborne to what kind of rocket propellants were needed to propel a spacecraft. These calculations were done by hand, with pencil and graph paper, often taking more than a week to complete and filling up six to eight notebooks with data and formulas. After the attack on Pearl Harbour, her work, along with that of her mostly male teammates, took on a new meaning—the army needed to lift a 14,000-pound bomber into the air. She was responsible for determining the thrust-to-weight ratio and comparing the performance of engines under various conditions. Given the amount of work, many more ‘computers’ were hired…"

As I finish writing this on my machine, and as hundreds of millions of these form the bedrock of our work, entertainment and life, think for a moment of those young women and men slaving away—the world’s first computers.

Jaspreet Bindra is the chief tech whisperer at Findability Sciences, and learning AI, Ethics and Society at Cambridge University.

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