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When Computers Were Human 322

stern writes "In the not-so-distant past, engineers, scientists and mathematicians routinely consulted tables of numbers for the answers to questions that they could not solve analytically. Sin(.4)? No problem: look it up in the Sine table. These tables were prepared by teams of people called computers (no, really -- that's where the term comes from) who typically had only rudimentary math skills. The computers were overseen by more knowledgeable mathematicians, who designed the algorithms and supervised their work." Read below for Stern's review of David Alan Grier's book When Computers Were Human.
When Computers Were Human
author David Alan Grier
pages 424 (with index and table of names)
publisher Princeton University Press
rating worth reading
reviewer Stern
ISBN 0691091579
summary A history of the first "computers", semi-literates who did math by hand

The most important of these teams was the Mathematical Tables Project, organized by the Work Projects Administration in the United States during the Great Depression. WPA rules required the hiring of people with virtually no skills, so much of the definitive work of the Mathematical Tables Project was computed by people who had mastered only addition. They were not authorized to subtract, let alone delve into the mysteries of multiplication or division. The algorithmic steps assigned to them sometimes produced negative numbers, and it goes almost without saying that these computers had no idea what these were or how to handle them. Gertrude Blanch, the mathematician who oversaw their work, had devised a scheme whereby positive numbers would be written in black, negative numbers in red. On the wall in front of her human computers hung a poster that encapsulates much of the era of human computing. It read:

Black plus black is black
Red plus red is red
Black plus red or red plus black, hand the sheets to team 2

Grier has written a history of human computing. It begins in the 1760s and continues through the two hundred years until digital computers ended the industry.

From the start, computers were dedicated to projects in astronomy, cartography, and navigation. Grier describes the nature of these problems and why they required numerical solutions. He touches on the alternating competition and cooperation between teams of computers in different countries, and the different organizational models they employed. Perhaps the most memorable fact from the early years of human computing is that the very first team of French computers, assembled by Gaspard Clair Francois Marie Riche de Prony in the early 1790s, was composed entirely of wig-makers left unemployed by the French Revolution. They created trigonometric tables required by France's experiments with the decimalization of trigonometry (an abandoned effort to do for angle measure what the metric system was doing for the measurement of mass, length, and so forth).

Their work, though of little ultimate relevance to the modern world, illustrates aspects of human computing that would not change. Major computing efforts were always sponsored by governments. A small number of planners oversaw work by people who themselves knew little math. And the bulk of the work was done by people who were marginalized, perhaps otherwise unemployable, and who would do the repetitive calculations. This work conferred no prestige, and many were skeptical even of the conclusions drawn from it. If an equation could not be properly solved, how could one take confidence from any numerical approximation? Even Henry David Thoreau worked a dig at human computers into the manuscript for Walden, dismissing the mathematics that might allow an astronomer "to discover new satellites of Neptune but not detect the motes in his eyes, or to what vagabond he is a satellite himself."

Women emerged as the most important computers. Demand for computing spiked in wartime, when young men were off fighting and therefore unavailable, and the economics of hiring women was compelling even in peacetime. They would work for half of what similarly skilled men would. By World War II, in the United States, computing power was measured not in megahertz or teraflops, but in kilogirls.

By the 20th century, the work of human computers was augmented by mechanical or even electrical calculators that automated certain steps of their work, but these were expensive and prone to breakdown, and did not significantly change the nature of the work.

Grier devotes special attention to the Mathematical Tables Project run by the WPA, later taken over by the National Bureau of Standards, and to the mathematician Gertrude Blanch who ran that team. She is fascinating, a woman who arrived in the United States at the age of 11, who had worked to support her family and not been able to get her Ph.D until she was 39 years old. It was then 1936, the middle of the Great Depression, and the job prospects for female, Jewish mathematicians were bleak. Through luck and hard work she found her way to the Mathematical Tables Project, where she assumed a role that combined mathematician, schoolteacher, and coach. Her fanatical attention to error-checking resulted in tables good enough to win the support of those who were skeptical of work by a government relief organization. She also led by example, and solved certain problems personally when she thought that would be easier than breaking down the algorithms for her computers. Grier says that Blanch in this way personally did work that backed Hans Bethe's Nobel prize-winning model of solar evolution, though it is unclear if Bethe ever knew that the math had been done by one mathematician, rather than her computers. After the war, Blanch was hampered by FBI suspicions that she was secretly a communist. Their evidence for this was nearly nonexistent, and in what must have been a remarkable showdown, this diminutive fifty-year-old mathematician demanded, and won, a hearing to clear her name. She worked productively in numerical mathematics and algorithms for the rest of her life, but remained forever suspicious of digital computers and never adopted them herself.

Grier does excellent research, tracking down surviving computers and sorting through family letters to tell the stories of an entire industry that is being forgotten. He even finds evidence for the working environment for the women computers at Harvard Observatory in the late 1870s in the lyrics to a satire of Gilbert & Sullivan's HMS Pinafore, written by a junior astronomer there at the time.

The book is beautifully printed and has a comprehensive index. Kudos to the Princeton University Press for taking such pride in their work.

When Computers Were Human is weak in several areas. First, Grier glosses over technical aspects of human computing. What were the algorithms that these people used? How was error-checking implemented? He never tells us. Clearly, Grier's goal was to write a work of history, not math, but the people likely to read it are people who care about the math, or about computers, and he omits material that such readers would expect. Second, this is a bureaucratic story. The best human computing was done by large teams sponsored by government in wartime, and the story of these teams revolves around the politicians or bureaucrats who arranged for their funding, and the various acronym-labeled groups that gave them work or provided their employees. At times, it reads as much like a history of agricultural policies as a text about the prehistory of computers.

Grier's story follows his sources: he devotes space to the groups where he has the most material, even if others may have been larger or done more important work. Finally, his discussion of digital computers, where they play a role in the story, is cursory, and may not give credit to those who deserve it.

Is it worth reading? Yes. Consider the reviews of the final tables published by the Bureau of Standards at In comments as recent as 2004, people who are still using these 50-year-old volumes comment in several languages on which chapters of the books are most useful, where to beware of errors or outdated methods, and on the special emotional role that these volumes play for those who use them, or who needed them in the past. "I probably would never have gotten my Ph.D without this book, and it is a stupendous classic." "Nearly every time you need a mathematical relation or information you will find it on this book." "If you work with mathematical research or numerical computing, you must have this book," and so forth. This praise, and Grier's book, are fine testaments to the world's first computers.

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When Computers Were Human

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  • Truly amazing... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Gopal.V ( 532678 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @03:01PM (#12987689) Homepage Journal
    It is very very humbling to think about all those teams sitting around calculating the sine and log for the damned tables. I hated to even use a slide-rule or the log tables - the only thing I could do in my head was approximate square roots. These are the real pioneers who made most of modern engineering math possible.

    The more interesting part is the title rather than the blurb though. It sounded almost like when men were men, women were women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were small furry creatures. Sadly this seems to be a story about the people who bothered the so called computers rather than a story of grit and glory - a story of buearacracy and communist witch hunts ?.

  • Dear Old Mum (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Stanistani ( 808333 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @03:02PM (#12987710) Homepage Journal
    My mother was one of those computers - she worked in England during WWII, using a 'comptometer' and had no idea what she was computing, despite hearing random roaring noises from elsewhere in the facility, until one fine day she was introduced to a Mr. Whittle, who had designed one of the first jet engines for Great Britain.
  • by DanielMarkham ( 765899 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @03:03PM (#12987713) Homepage
    This sounds like a demeaning, brutal job. Almost like a factory for addition. Can you imagine what these folks talked about when they went home at night?
    "Had a bunch of sevens at the plant today. Thought we never add them all up."
    There's a slide-rule connection here. Oddly enough, numbers that couldn't be computed on a slide rule were deemed irrational. For those interested in slide rules, Here's a short history of the slide rule [] and here's a guy's collection of slide rules []

    Microsoft Taken To Task On Hiring Practices []
  • Reminds me of "Souls In The Great Machine", a book I read a little while ago. In it, a giant computer is made in a similar way that this describes, sort of, although not all the components are there voluntarily.
  • Re:Slide rules... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Fjornir ( 516960 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @03:08PM (#12987769)
    But you're missing out on the real wins of a slide-rule (especially the circular ones). First: arbitrary precision. Second: better grasp of the relationships between two numbers (consider the difference in feeling between a quarter-twist and four twists)....
  • Re:Slide rules... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Rosco P. Coltrane ( 209368 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @03:11PM (#12987806)
    But you're missing out on the real wins of a slide-rule (especially the circular ones). First: arbitrary precision. Second: better grasp of the relationships between two numbers

    Third: geek factor
    Fourth: no batteries needed
  • Babbage (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ch-chuck ( 9622 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @03:19PM (#12987863) Homepage
    Tables calculated by humans also contained a lot of human errors - I understand Charles Babbage was so frustrated by errors in human calculated tables that he wished for some way they could be calculated "by steam" (engine/machine).

  • Re:Dear Old Mum (Score:2, Interesting)

    by tritesnikov ( 808734 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @03:19PM (#12987865)
    My grandmother actually has a comptometer that I played with when I was younger. I haven't used it in years, but it was funky how it actually worked mechanically given that I only knew electronic calculators. You had to do some funny stuff for subtracting, I think you had to hold a lever down and use a number one less than what you were subtracting, but it worked.
  • by LouisvilleDebugger ( 414168 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @03:19PM (#12987867) Journal
    Feynman is credited with an early application of parallel processing in the way he divided up his "girls" to do the yield calculations for the first atomic bomb, while they were waiting for IBM machines to be set up at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. Instead of each girl doing one whole equation herself, he divided the work so that one girl would only do a single kind of operation (such as cube roots.) In his memoir, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman," he writes that with this scheme he was able to get the predicted speed of the IBM machines out of his human computers. "The difference was that the machine didn't get tired and could work three shifts. But the girls got tired after awhile."
  • Los Alamos (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Muhammar ( 659468 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @03:20PM (#12987873)
    Most of the tedious calculations in wartime Los Alamos was done by "clever boys with engineering skils and high school diploma" that were drafted into army and then assigned to Los Alamos duty.

    Everybody there was doing the calculations on simple electromechanic calculators "Merchant" which had the unpleasant tendency to break down a lot. (They also used slide rule to get quick fist aproximations). Eventualy they purchased a great number of card-punching machines from IBM (designed for bank account tabelations) and adapted them for iterative numerical calculations by putting them into a *cycle* - a revolutionary idea at the time.

    This stil required lots of people to feed the cards into the machines at each step and the stacks of cards was going round very very slowly. The biggest problem of these calculations was that at this point the boys were pretty bored with the job. When they were told what they were actualy working on, their productivity increased ninefold!

    A very entertaining re-collection of this computing history is in "Los Alamos from bellow" in "Surely you are joking Mr. Feynman"
  • Asimov Short Story (Score:5, Interesting)

    by CrazyWingman ( 683127 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @03:21PM (#12987890) Journal
    There is a great short story by Asimov, in which many years in the future, man has forgotten how to do math without an electronic computer. It then happens one day that a young man figures out a process for doing addition and multiplication on paper, and shows off his new methods to a bunch of government big wigs. The military planners are overjoyed, and they begin to redesign their rockets so they can fit a man, who will then be able to calculate his trajectory and pilot the missile to its target by using pencil and paper. This is a huge win for all involved, because humans are much cheaper than computers, of course. :)
  • CERN (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Adelbert ( 873575 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @03:38PM (#12988044) Journal
    Possibly off topic, but a similar thing went on with the old bubble chambers [] at CERN.

    People wihout much of a background in physics would trall through the images, looking for patterns that they'd been told to look out for.

    I think its important that someone is documenting the work of these heroes of maths and physics. Without them, advancements would have had to wait for the computer revolution. If we don't remember how important their contributions were, I'm sure it will only be a generation before they're forgotten.

  • Re:Slide rules... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by poot_rootbeer ( 188613 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @03:38PM (#12988045)
    When a modern pocket calculator is used, the precision may be displayed to seven to ten places of accuracy while in reality, the results can never be of greater precision than the input data available."

    It would be remarkably trivial for pocket calculators to analyze the input data and determine how many significant figures are approprate. Why so few models offer this feature, even as an optional mode, I do not understand.
  • Re:Truly amazing... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by quarkscat ( 697644 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @03:53PM (#12988165)
    The parent and /. review reminds me about my time
    working as a sub-subcontractor on the Hubble Space
    Telescope. The development teams for the science
    instrument packages that were to upgrade (prior to
    the SST accident) the HST would check the output
    of Oracle database stored procedures by comparing
    trig functions with those from a 20 year old trig
    tables book.

    If you thought proofreading the book in the grand-
    parent /. post book review was tedious, imagine
    having to proofread the data tables in that 20
    year old trig book! The adjective "mind-numbing"
    keeps reappearing, like an "8-ball" answer...
  • by slapout ( 93640 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @04:08PM (#12988278)
    If anyone's interested, there are several sites with instructions on creating your own slide rule. [] tml []

  • by Conspiracy_Of_Doves ( 236787 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @04:12PM (#12988311)
    clicky []
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @04:18PM (#12988356)
    Red and black numbers,
    Is there a connection between this and the configuration of the roulette wheel?
  • Re:Dear Old Mum (Score:3, Interesting)

    by renehollan ( 138013 ) <> on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @04:27PM (#12988441) Homepage Journal
    I once owned a comptometer.

    It weighed about 40 lbs. (about 18 kg.) and had lots of mechanical buttons, circular mechanical readouts (think car's odomoeter), and gears, all housed in a neat, if heavy desktop box. It was about the size of a manual typewriter (though it has an AC power cord).

    It could add, but arguably, some fast humans could probably add faster in their heads.

  • by BlightThePower ( 663950 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @04:30PM (#12988473)
    Feynman isn't credited with that or indeed a lot of things in "Surely you're joking Mr Feynman" and the other one the title of which escapes me. Feynman credits himself with many of those things. I'm not disputing his credentials as a great scientist, for sure he is universally recognised for those things, and as an influencial thinker (especially in self-professed "geek" circles) but even the man's best friends would and indeed on many occasions have pointed out his proclivity for self-promotion and tendency to portray himself in a certain light that might not be entirely accurate in his books.
  • by Qbertino ( 265505 ) <> on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @05:03PM (#12988765)
    The last few years of school I went to waldorf school. We actually learned to use log tables (still got my table book here) and calculators were forbidden.
    We'd draw roots using them and all.
    The reasoning was that anyone can keypunch but understanding what log actually mean is a differn't thing and requires getting your hands dirty. It was at that time when I started programming on my first computer - a PC 1402 Sharp Pocket Computer. Amongst my friends I was the only one that actually understood what these symbols really meant.

    I'm gratefull for our teachers taking us that way. I'd actually do the same. Once you've really understood what logs are all about (and when you do your A levels with log tables you have understood what they're about) tackeling larger math problems is a piece of cake.

    Take this advice: If you have kids, don't let them near/use an electronic calculator to early. Give them log tables or a slide ruler. It's the best was to learn higher math.
  • by Amerist ( 183586 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @05:25PM (#12988943) Homepage
    The opening paragraph reminds me of a fiction book, Souls in the Great Machine [] by Sean McMullen. Wherein exists technologies that do vast mathematical computations by way of people acting as logic gates and functions. Much in the way that computers worked as described in that paragraph.
  • by robbarrett ( 84479 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @05:47PM (#12989110)
    My mom was employed by NASA (aka NACA) as a "computer" during the Mercury space program. In those days, each engineer had his computer and the computers wore skirts (as they liked to say). She did the calculations for the rescue rocket that was mounted on top of the capsule.

    I always enjoy telling people that my mother was a computer. The response I normally get is an understanding and condescending nod.
  • Human Computers (Score:2, Interesting)

    by SouthendPier ( 126056 ) on Wednesday July 06, 2005 @01:29PM (#12995628)
    I was one.

    In the summer of '57, at the Southern California
    Cooperative Wind Tunnel, swing shift. Pay
    was $1.60 /hr. + 0.12 shift premium. (Gas
    was about 30 cents / gallon).

    Punching an electromechanical "square root Frieden".
    Weight about 50 lbs., price about $1600.

    The "system" featured overlapped I/O:
    remember previous result
    Left hand:enter new caclulation, start
    Right hand: write down previous result
    while the gears churned...

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