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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 littl 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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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 littl 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.

30 review for When Computers Were Human

  1. 4 out of 5

    Brian Borchers

    There has been a lot of interest recently in the history of computing before the advent of digital computers, and particularly the role that women played as computers (a job title) in the first half of the twentieth century. The book and Movie, Hidden Figures, described a group of black women who worked as computers at the NACA and later NASA laboratory at Langley VA. Rise of the Rocket Girls gave an oral history of women computers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Grier's book is co There has been a lot of interest recently in the history of computing before the advent of digital computers, and particularly the role that women played as computers (a job title) in the first half of the twentieth century. The book and Movie, Hidden Figures, described a group of black women who worked as computers at the NACA and later NASA laboratory at Langley VA. Rise of the Rocket Girls gave an oral history of women computers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Grier's book is considerably broader in its coverage. I'd recommend all 3 books.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Bradley Roth

    Fascinating history of human computers.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Ushan

    The first electronic digital computers were made in the early 1940s, and dozens more were built in the late 1940s and the early 1950s. How was computing done before that? The French Revolution introduced not only a new calendar and a new system of weights and measures, but also division of the right angle into 100 grades instead of 90 degrees. New trigonometric tables needed to be prepared for surveyors, who might lose their revolutionary fervor if they had to convert grades to degrees and use t The first electronic digital computers were made in the early 1940s, and dozens more were built in the late 1940s and the early 1950s. How was computing done before that? The French Revolution introduced not only a new calendar and a new system of weights and measures, but also division of the right angle into 100 grades instead of 90 degrees. New trigonometric tables needed to be prepared for surveyors, who might lose their revolutionary fervor if they had to convert grades to degrees and use the ancien régime tables. The official in charge of this chanced upon the chapter in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations about a pin factory, and decided to organize a computing factory, hiring former wigmakers and servants, whose occupations were superfluous in the revolutionary society, but who could do arithmetic. Decades later Charles Babbage heard of this, and tried to build an automatic calculator of polynomials, but failed, having spent an enormous amount of money; a Swedish engineer and his son did build a simpler version. The nineteenth century saw many mechanical calculators and slide rules, which continued to be used well into the twentieth century; in the Soviet Union they were used into the 1970s. Large astronomical, ballistic, nautical calculations demanded large workshops full of calculators; the New Deal's stimulus program hired hundreds of unemployed men and women to calculate mathematical tables. One meteorologist imagined a weather forecasting service staffed by 64000 calculators; before Edward Lorenz's butterfly paper it was not realized, how hard it is. Electromechanical tabulators were used since the 1890 United States census; during the Manhattan Project, young Richard Feynman gave a plutonium bomb computation both to women with mechanical calculators and to tabulators; at first the women were ahead, but then they got tired, and the tabulators didn't.

  4. 5 out of 5

    E

    Remember the team sport of complex calculations? 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 t Remember the team sport of complex calculations? 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.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jim Razinha

    I once looked up "computer" in a 1937 dictionary and read "one who computes". This book is a nice, if dry, history about those who computed in the days before digital took over...astronomy, navigation, ballistics, weather, census...the math tables are mind boggling, and I used many (Chemical Rubber Company anyone?) I had a little nostalgia in the last chapter...Grier talked about two mainframes that marked the definite end to human computing - the IBM 360 and UNIVAC 1108 - both of which I wrote a I once looked up "computer" in a 1937 dictionary and read "one who computes". This book is a nice, if dry, history about those who computed in the days before digital took over...astronomy, navigation, ballistics, weather, census...the math tables are mind boggling, and I used many (Chemical Rubber Company anyone?) I had a little nostalgia in the last chapter...Grier talked about two mainframes that marked the definite end to human computing - the IBM 360 and UNIVAC 1108 - both of which I wrote assembly language code for. I still remember that the UNIVC had 36 bit words.

  6. 4 out of 5

    David Baron

  7. 4 out of 5

    Lyle

  8. 4 out of 5

    Bruce Biewald

  9. 5 out of 5

    Nicole

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jason Heppler

  11. 4 out of 5

    George McCrary

  12. 4 out of 5

    Andy Ganse

  13. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

  14. 4 out of 5

    Samir Passi

  15. 4 out of 5

    Hannah Gray

  16. 4 out of 5

    Richard

  17. 5 out of 5

    Paul Bleisch

  18. 4 out of 5

    Karl Mendonca

  19. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

  20. 4 out of 5

    Georgiana

  21. 5 out of 5

    Timothy Griffin

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ardis

  23. 5 out of 5

    Ben Deane

  24. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

  25. 5 out of 5

    Ron Boisvert

  26. 4 out of 5

    Stephen

  27. 5 out of 5

    Erin Leafe

  28. 4 out of 5

    Vesna Kovach

  29. 5 out of 5

    Arjun Narayan

  30. 4 out of 5

    Martha

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