When Computers Were Human

When Computers Were Human

by David Alan Grier
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Princeton University Press
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When Computers Were Human

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691133829
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 08/27/2007
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 424
Product dimensions: 6.58(w) x 9.26(h) x 0.98(d)

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Grandmother's Secret Life 1

Part I: Astronomy and the Division of Labor 1682-1880 9

Chapter One: The First Anticipated Return: Halley's Comet 1758 11

Chapter Two: The Children of Adam Smith 26

Chapter Three: The Celestial Factory: Halley's Comet 1835 46

Chapter Four: The American Prime Meridian 55

Chapter Five: A Carpet for the Computing Room 72

Part II: Mass Production and New Fields of Science 1880-1930 89

Chapter Six: Looking Forward, Looking Backward: Machinery 1893 91

Chapter Seven: Darwin's Cousins 102

Chapter Eight: Breaking from the Ellipse: Halley's Comet 1910 119

Chapter Nine: Captains of Academe 126

Chapter Ten: War Production 145

Chapter Eleven: Fruits of the Conflict: Machinery 1922 159

Part III: Professional Computers and an Independent Discipline 1930-1964 175

Chapter Twelve: The Best of Bad Times 177

Chapter Thirteen: Scientific Relief 198

Chapter Fourteen: Tools of the Trade: Machinery 1937 220

Chapter Fifteen: Professional Ambition 233

Chapter Sixteen: The Midtown New York Glide Bomb Club 256

Chapter Seventeen: The Victor's Share 276

Chapter Eighteen: I Alone Am Left to Tell Thee 298

Epilogue: Final Passage: Halley's Comet 1986 318

Acknowledgments 323

Appendix: Recurring Characters, Institutions, and Concepts 325

Notes 333

Research Notes and Bibliography 373

Index 401

Illustration Credits 412

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When Computers Were Human 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
RolfDobelli More than 1 year ago
Usually, the word "computer" generates images of a powerful, programmable machine that can perform almost any task. However, a "computer" was originally a person who performed complex math. Some "human computers" were scientists who did advanced calculations, but most were workers who labored over the same types of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing hour after hour, day after day. Scientist David Alan Grier weaves a wonderful story of the history of computing, framed by the discovery of Halley's Comet and its three subsequent appearances. The comet gives the story a nice structure that helps readers see the advances in computing over the past three centuries. Grier introduces colorful personalities and covers pivotal historical events in the rise of mechanical computing. getAbstract finds that this history book informs your understanding of how computerization advanced while also being a terrific read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I heard about the book through a marketplace segment while I was doing my AP Economics book and it sounded interesting, I got the impression it would be about this woman who studied calculus but didn't do nothing with it. The book was about all these people who majored in mathematics and what they did with there degrees, grant it most of them were human computers, making only $30 a week.. Man things must have been cheap back in the day! If you have time to sit down and read this book go for it! I really got into the book with the last 100 pages, the first 100 or so it was kind of run on and dull but once I got to Gertrude Blanch I was like waho this is so cool! I like mathematics and I plan to do something amazing! Everyone should read this book to see what life was like before everyone became dependent on computers!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The best book i have read about computers