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 twelve Dickensian hours a day to support their widowed mother, were amongst the first computers! Before computers became machines, much like my laptop, they were all human, and their job was, as the name suggests, to compute and to calculate. Edwin’s father had also been a computer, as he and others in their thousands performed astronomical calculations, created actuarial tables for the budding insurance industry, and tallied accounts for large corporations, including the East India Company.

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 Capitalism, about how division of labour could efficiently manufacture pins at scale. Daston talks about how Prony decided to use this concept to create logarithmic tables - something most engineers would be familiar with – at the scale of two hundred thousand logarithms to a minimum of fourteen decimal places. He created a pyramid with three classes of people: at the top were a very few ‘mathematicians of distinction’ who created the formulae for calculating 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 many ‘workers’, schooled in basic arithmetic, who performed the actual hard chore of millions of calculations and wrote down the numbers. In today’s computer and data science language, at the top were the architects, the middle were the algorithms, and the bottom were the computers! In fact, it was Prony’s project which inspired British mathematician Charles Babbage to try and replace the bottom of the pyramid human computers by a machine, thus creating the Difference Engine, thought by many popular texts to be the first non-human computer.

Babbage was not the only one. French mathematician Blaise Pascal built and flogged his Arithmetic Machine, another 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 the human computers. As Daston writes, they were noisy, expensive, broke down often, and more “items to adorn a princely cabinet of curiosities rather than workaday tools.”

There was one fundamental change however – increasingly the computers were women. Predictably, the reason for this was financial: female labour was cheap. Even women with college degrees and advanced mathematical training were paid much lesser 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 computer, and as hundreds of millions of them form the bedrock of our work, entertainment, and life, think for a moment to those young women and men slaving away – the first computers.