More than a century before “Her,” computers with human voices wore dresses and had relationships with men.
Yes, computers used to be people who computed or calculated complex mathematical processes. Men sometimes worked as computers, often as an intermediate career step, but women dominated the profession.
The first time the term “Computer” appeared in the “New York Times” was in May 2, 1892; the ad by the US Civil Service Commission stated: “A Computer Wanted. […] The examination will include the subjects of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and astronomy.”
Edward Charles Pickering of the Harvard Observatory famously hired a bunch of women to process astronomical data. The Harvard Women, also known as Pickering’s Harem, included significant astronomers like Henrietta Swan Leavitt, whose insights about luminosity allowed astronomers to measure the distance between the Earth and faraway galaxies.
Here are the Harvard Women in action:
Human computers played a prominent role in scientific research through World War II, but when it came to the insanely complex calculations related to nuclear fission they were becoming impractical.
Daniel Yergin’s “The Quest
” describes the moment when human computing finally gave way to electronic computing:
The advent of the computer, in historical terms, owes much to a chance meeting on a railroad platform near the army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland during World War II. A young mathematician caught sight of a world-famous figure — at least world famous in the worlds of science and mathematics. His name was John von Neumann. “With considerable temerity” the mathematician, Herman Goldfine, started a conversation. To Goldfine’s surprise, von Neumann, despite his towering reputation, was quite friendly. But when Goldfine told von Neumann that he was helping develop “an electronic computer capable of 333 multiplications per second,” the conversation abruptly changed “from one of relaxed good humour to one more like the oral examination for the doctor’s degree in mathematics.”
Until then, computers were not machines but a job classification: “computers” were people who did the tiresome but essential calculations needed for surveying or for calculating the tides or the movements of heavenly bodies. But von Neumann had been questing after something like a mechanical computer in order to handle the immense computational challenge he and his colleagues had faced while working on the atomic bomb during World War II. At the secret Los Alamos, as they struggled to figure out how to transform the theoretical concept of a chain reaction into a fearsome weapon, they had “invented modern mathematical modelling.” But they needed the machines to make it practical.
Immediately after the encounter on that station platform, von Neumann used his authority as a top-flight scientific adviser to the war effort to jump into this nascent and obscure computer project and promote its development. By June 1945 he had written a 101-page paper that became “the technological basis for the worldwide computer industry.” He started designing and building a new prototype computer in Princeton at the Institute for Advanced Study.
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