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When Computers Were Human

timothy posted about 9 years ago | from the now-it's-the-other-way-around dept.

Math 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.

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.

You can purchase When Computers Were Human from Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Slide rules... (5, Funny)

Fjornir (516960) | about 9 years ago | (#12987623)

You can have my circular slide-rule when you pry it from my cold dead fingers.

Re:Slide rules... (1)

jimbolauski (882977) | about 9 years ago | (#12987677)

You can keep your slide rule, and I'll keep my TI. Which can calculate sin,cos,tan as well as e and pi to 10 digits.

Re:Slide rules... (4, Interesting)

Fjornir (516960) | about 9 years ago | (#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... (3, Interesting)

Rosco P. Coltrane (209368) | about 9 years ago | (#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

Re:Slide rules... (3, Funny)

jimbolauski (882977) | about 9 years ago | (#12987827)

But a slide rule can't spell BOOBIES upside down.

Re:Slide rules... (4, Informative)

dasunt (249686) | about 9 years ago | (#12987981)

You can keep your slide rule, and I'll keep my TI. Which can calculate sin,cos,tan as well as e and pi to 10 digits.

Lets let wikipedia rebutt this:

Advantages: A slide rule tends to moderate the fallacy of "false precision" and significance. The typical precision available to a user of a slide rule is about three places of accuracy. This is in good correspondence with most data available for input to engineering formulas (such as the strength of materials, accurate to two or three places of precision, with a great amount--typically 1.5 or greater--of safety factor as an additional multiplier for error, variations in construction skill, and variability of materials). 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."

Re:Slide rules... (2, Interesting)

poot_rootbeer (188613) | about 9 years ago | (#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:Slide rules... (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#12987723)

According to my actuarial table, if you are still using a circular slide rule, I may not have have very long to wait.

Re:Slide rules... (1)

ShaniaTwain (197446) | about 9 years ago | (#12987797)

oh dont worry, the robots have a mighty strong grip and you're a much less efficient fuel source clutching that slide rule.

Re:Slide rules... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#12987821)

Circular slide rules are still used extensively in aviation (mainly in training; when I took my written back in 2000, we weren't allowed to use digital calculators)... although the rules have changed since then.

Long live the E6B!

Re:Slide rules... (1)

Fjornir (516960) | about 9 years ago | (#12987856)

Shatterproof. Waterproof. Battery never goes dead. Circular slide rule kicks ass.

Re:Slide rules... (1)

mcheu (646116) | about 9 years ago | (#12987922)

Probably a joke killer, but I'm curious, can you legitimately call it a slide-rule, if it's not straight? i always thought the "rule" part of "slide-rule" was meant to mean ruler, or straight edge measuring device.

Re:Slide rules... (1)

Fjornir (516960) | about 9 years ago | (#12987966)

Given that a "rule" is "...material marked off in units used especially for measuring...." I'd say that I don't see the contradiction. And even if it is somehow linquistically imprecise they are still called "circular slide-rules", so........

fp (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#12987624)


Ah, the old days.... (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#12987629)

When women were locked by the dozen in rooms calculating projectile trajectories like they were meant too.

Re:Ah, the old days.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#12987650)

Good times, good times.

Not so old, not so past (2, Insightful)

goombah99 (560566) | about 9 years ago | (#12987749)

Many of the great tables were compiled during the depression era. Public works projects. like our bridges and trail systems we live on that legacy and dont appreciate it was aone-off event.

Well I take that back, George Bush has scheduled the next Depression in about 8 years. See you there in the computer room or the breadline. Your current skills will be worthless during the depression.

Dont believe me? the national debt had doubled under George. For the current generation that's a debt of about $150,000 per head.

Re:Ah, the old days.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#12987803)

You mean like those in a pimp house taking notes on how far the money shot can go before it hits the eye?

Re:Ah, the old days.... (1)

SylvesterTheCat (321686) | about 9 years ago | (#12987996)

As an artilleryman, I find this very funny because I know some of the history of Tabular Firing Tables (TFTs).

I was unaware that some of mathematical table wrok was done under the WPA. Interesting stuff.

David Alan Grier (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#12987652)

What the hell is he doing writing about computers? Or is this a comedy book? []

Re:David Alan Grier (1)

_Shorty-dammit (555739) | about 9 years ago | (#12987980)

strange coincidence on the name, thanks. I was thinking the same thing when I was reading the post, wtf's that dude from In Living Colour doing writing about this stuff?!?

OSS Computers? (3, Funny)

cloudofstrife (887438) | about 9 years ago | (#12987663)

Now what's the percentage of the businesses/governments that used open source software/algorithms on their human computers?

Re:OSS Computers? (1)

blueZhift (652272) | about 9 years ago | (#12987926)

Now what's the percentage of the businesses/governments that used open source software/algorithms on their human computers?

That's a good question. I would guess that if you exclude processes related to each company's unique business logic, the proportion of OSS software used by their human computers was probably very high. The mathematical needs of most businesses are probably quite similar, so all of the computers would likely be using public domain algorithms. No one has patented basic mathematics yet...right?

Imagine... (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#12987664)

...a beowolf cluster of those!

(p.s. I'm not wasting perfectly good karma on this)

Re:Imagine... (1)

jellomizer (103300) | about 9 years ago | (#12987732)

You can it is call a beaurocicy. It doesn't work well.

I saw one! (1)

uberdave (526529) | about 9 years ago | (#12987952)

On an old episode of Dr Who, the Doctor went to a planet of human calculators (to try to get the TARDIS chameleon circuits working again, I think). Everybody on the whole planet was sitting around with an abacus in their hand.

Obligatory Question (3, Funny)

Foolomon (855512) | about 9 years ago | (#12987665)

But can they boot up with Linux? And when the supervisory mathematicians added a new table for them to use, did you have to recompile them? :D

Re:Obligatory Question (4, Funny)

Rosco P. Coltrane (209368) | about 9 years ago | (#12987862)

Other important questions:

- what happened to them when they were told to calculate the following problem: "Add one to a positive number and do it again until the result is null, then come tell me the result"

- did you have to put thermal grease under their butt to sit them on a socket-7 chair? and did they need a fan on their forehead?

- if you asked them to divide 20 by 4, would they sometime answer 4.99999999?

- Did they use their fingers to write on a certain sheet (address) and their feet to switch sheets (segments)?


Grier? (1)

ironrhino (796539) | about 9 years ago | (#12987675)

I thought David Alan Grier was a comedian? Ive seen him on Comedy Central...hmmm.

Re:Grier? (1)

part_of_you (859291) | about 9 years ago | (#12987972)

People could add but not subtract? They could know what a positive number is, but not a negative?

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

It doesn't seem likely that his is a real fact. More like a good slashdot story.

I, for one... (1)

eno2001 (527078) | about 9 years ago | (#12987676) glad to see that David Allan has moved onto other things after his long career with M.A.S.H. in the 70s. ;P

Re:I, for one... (1)

Jivecat (836356) | about 9 years ago | (#12987904)

You're thinking of David Ogden Stiers [] .

multi-processor to the extreme! (1)

zenneth (767572) | about 9 years ago | (#12987679)

that's what I'd call "distributed computing"

David Alan Grier? (4, Funny)

aftk2 (556992) | about 9 years ago | (#12987681)

Did he write this book before or after his seminal work on "In Living Color": When Television Was Funny.

Re:David Alan Grier? (5, Funny)

Qzukk (229616) | about 9 years ago | (#12987835)

One would think that with a naming convention that allows two or more alphabetic names plus a possibility of a trailing number that parents would manage to name the people they create in a non-colliding fashion. Obviously we need to create namespaces to further subdivide the population of names to help disambiguate such conflicts.

I propose that we begin using a word to identify said namespaces. Let's call it a "title". When we then refer to a specific person, we then refer to them by title. For example, and I'm just making this up here, we may want to have several committee meetings before we settle on these namespace titles, we could refer to this person as "Comedian David Alan Grier". This would disambiguate references to that person from another person... lets call him "Professor David Alan Grier".

Of course this is just an idea in formation stages. We'll need to hold off on any action until we have an RFC with approvals from the appropriate naming organizations and an ISO standard to help ensure worldwide compatibility.

David Alan Grier (1)

homerules (688184) | about 9 years ago | (#12987683)

I loved him on the show In Living Color!

Truly amazing... (4, Interesting)

Gopal.V (532678) | about 9 years ago | (#12987689)

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 ?.

Re:Truly amazing... (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#12987756)

It is very very humbling to think about all those teams sitting around calculating the sine and log for the damned tables.

I find it has the opposite effect. All I can think about is, what a waste, here's an entire team of people I could replace with a script.

Should Read (1)

MankyD (567984) | about 9 years ago | (#12987690)

should be:
Black plus black is black
Red plus red is red
Black plus red or red plus black, hand the sheets to team 2
In case anyone was confused by the lack of the line break.

Re:Should Read (1)

tomhudson (43916) | about 9 years ago | (#12987948)

No, I was wondering more about THIS:
Women emerged as the most important computers.
Demand for computing spiked in wartime
... so what he's saying is the demand for computers a.k.a. women went DOWN after the war. So all that "make love, not war" stuff back in the '60s was really gay-on-gay propaganda.

Wow. Whodathunkit?

Wow, career change for David Alan Grier? (0, Redundant)

Optic7 (688717) | about 9 years ago | (#12987691)

Who knew that Mr. Grier, the hall monitor with the short leg on "In Living Color" was a closet math geek? :-)

Reminds (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#12987694)

Reminds me of Dune.

My God! (4, Funny)

ShaniaTwain (197446) | about 9 years ago | (#12987698)

The Sandiego Supercomputer is made of people! You've got to tell them! Sandiego Supercomputer is people!

Re:My God! (5, Funny)

EMH_Mark3 (305983) | about 9 years ago | (#12987731)

That would have worked soo much better with 'Soylent Cray'

They still exist... (0, Flamebait)

WizardRahl (840191) | about 9 years ago | (#12987702)

...they are just called Chinese now.

Men On Books (1)

Nytewynd (829901) | about 9 years ago | (#12987703)

I wonder if he'll get 'Twan to write another review for his book.

The reviewer clearly should have rated this book "Two snaps in a Z formation"

Human computer license? (2, Funny)

Iriel (810009) | about 9 years ago | (#12987707)

So if computers are originally human, does that put the brain under the GPL liscense or are we stricly proprietary hardware?

Re:Human computer license? (1)

hayh (706697) | about 9 years ago | (#12987994)

I'm pretty sure the human brain is closed-source. Of course, we're trying to reverse-engineer it :)

Dear Old Mum (5, Interesting)

Stanistani (808333) | about 9 years ago | (#12987710)

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.

Re:Dear Old Mum (2, Interesting)

tritesnikov (808734) | about 9 years ago | (#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.

Re:Dear Old Mum (1)

Rosco P. Coltrane (209368) | about 9 years ago | (#12987920)

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.

Yeah, it's called a carry...

Re:Dear Old Mum (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#12988030)

My mother had told me stories wherein she called herself a "calculator". Quite similar to these women except that she had a degree in math and prepared calculations for feeding into one of the early computers. It was at the U of Wisconsin just after WWII for a professor studying explosions in a chamber (rockets?). She was perhaps a bridge between these "computers" and "computer programmers".

Sci-Fi Novel (1)

suparjerk (784861) | about 9 years ago | (#12987711)

Someone could write a bad futuristic sci-fi novel about the human race being extinctk succeeded by a human-computer hybrid thingamajig, and title it "When Humans Were Human". Hardy har har. Or not.

Re:Sci-Fi Novel (1)

redheaded_stepchild (629363) | about 9 years ago | (#12987829)

How about a post-apocalyptic future where technology not only doesn't exist, but is relentlessly squashed when it appears?
Read this a few years ago. []

Re:Sci-Fi Novel (2, Informative)

Rosco P. Coltrane (209368) | about 9 years ago | (#12987978)

Actually there's a good scifi novel called "Dune" in which a class of humans, called "mentats", receive intensive training to be able to perform complex computations.

From what I remember, there's hardly any machine-computers in Dune. The empire has great technology and all, but it's all manned (space travel by the members of the spacing guild, calculations by mentats, telepathy by the bene gesserit)...

And You Guys Thought Working The Help Desk Sucked (4, Interesting)

DanielMarkham (765899) | about 9 years ago | (#12987713)

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 []

Re:And You Guys Thought Working The Help Desk Suck (1)

schwieter (836465) | about 9 years ago | (#12987860)

Irrational, meaning unable to be expressed as a ratio of whole numbers.

Nice try though.

What did they eat? (3, Funny)

internetjunkiegeorge (887792) | about 9 years ago | (#12987721)

Did they feed them pi?

Re:What did they eat? (3, Funny)

mopslik (688435) | about 9 years ago | (#12987814)

Did they feed them pi?

Pi are round. They don't provide square meals.

Just imagine... (1)

jarich (733129) | about 9 years ago | (#12987727)

The beowulf cluster!


Oblig. Bash Quote (2, Funny)

SeekerDarksteel (896422) | about 9 years ago | (#12987740)

i don't have hard drives. i just keep 30 chinese teenagers in my basement and force them to memorize numbers

Reminds me of "Souls In The Great Machine" (2, Interesting)

The_Unforgiven (521294) | about 9 years ago | (#12987742)

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.

progress? (5, Funny)

colmore (56499) | about 9 years ago | (#12987744)

So instead of asking a hunk of plastic and metal for answers to math problems, I would have been asking a room full of educated unmarried women?

This is progress!?!?!

Re:progress? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#12987925)

Sort of gives new meaning to cyber sex....
No way Im wasting perfectly good karma to make you all chuckle....

Re:progress? (1)

Peldor (639336) | about 9 years ago | (#12988009)

Face reality, at least the hunk of plastic won't say no.

Stamping out bugs... (1)

EWIPlayer (881908) | about 9 years ago | (#12987745)

I'm betting that this procedure involved a fair amount more violence than it does today...

In Europe as well! (1)

grotgrot (451123) | about 9 years ago | (#12987766)

My high school math teacher had worked on Concorde. He mentioned how they also had a roomful of women "computers" to do various calculations for them.

Re:In Europe as well! (1)

mallardtheduck (760315) | about 9 years ago | (#12987903)

Wow... I know a guy who did technical drawings for concorde... OT I know...

Arrogant prick (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#12987790)

These tables were prepared by teams of people called computers (no, really -- that's where the term comes from)...

Really? Gee, I never knew that! Thanks for telling me! I feel so enlightened now. Christ. This is a News for Nerds site, dumbass. We already know shit like that. Just because your mom gasps with delight and pride that her son has such a big brain on his shoulders doesn't mean the rest of us need this "no, really -- that's where the term comes from" patronizing tone.

Oh, how I wish to one day read a Slashdot book review where the reviewer treats us as equals and just gives us his review instead of seeing an opportunity to educate us poor, unfortunate slobs.

Re:Arrogant prick (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#12987934)

in support of the parent:

next up, a book review of an obscure work 'the first folio' a timeless classic! I can't believe I found this!

like you jackasses even fucking read books that don't have anthropomorphized tenticle rape of impossibly drawn women.

yeah math.. done by people... before digital computers.. thanks.. was your PhD in 'fucking useless observations' as well?

Insert Mentat Mantra of your choice here (1)

suitepotato (863945) | about 9 years ago | (#12987801)

There's probably a bunch more Dune references that could be made. Insert all here. Now that we're done with that, we can get on with the Soviet Russia, ...Overlords, and other staples.

Just wanted to get that out of the way.

Besides, anyone who had a martinet of a high school math teacher has had a taste of being a human computer. "You want how many digits of the square root of pi? What are you smoking Mr. (blipped)? No, no, no, I am not writing them longhand. You can take a dot matrix print like everyone else."

Re:Insert Mentat Mantra of your choice here (1)

Drey (1420) | about 9 years ago | (#12988010)

For some reason an episode of Doctor Who came to mind for me first.

An ironic posting here at Slashdot... (1)

TheTranceFan (444476) | about 9 years ago | (#12987807)

...where the average poster will be lucky to get 0.001 of a kilogirl.

I See The Future... (1)

creimer (824291) | about 9 years ago | (#12987815)

The next title in the series will be: When Computers Were Machines...

So... (1)

axonal (732578) | about 9 years ago | (#12987843)

Soylent Green Computing

Babbage (3, Interesting)

ch-chuck (9622) | about 9 years ago | (#12987863)

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).

Parallelism: Feynman's "Los Alamos From Below" (4, Interesting)

LouisvilleDebugger (414168) | about 9 years ago | (#12987867)

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."

Re:Parallelism: Feynman's "Los Alamos From Below" (2, Informative)

imsabbel (611519) | about 9 years ago | (#12987962)

Thats not parallel computing, that is pipelining.
But still fascinating, as it is used in modern cpus for the very same reasons it was used back then, only on totally different scales....

Los Alamos (2, Interesting)

Muhammar (659468) | about 9 years ago | (#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"

Used in SF - Sean McMullen (1)

Walter Wart (181556) | about 9 years ago | (#12987885)

Sean McMullen wrote a very nice series that used this as a plot element. The first book is Souls in the Great Machine [] . Takes place in Australia about 2000 years in the future.

Asimov Short Story (4, Interesting)

CrazyWingman (683127) | about 9 years ago | (#12987890)

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. :)

I was taught to use tables in school in 1990s (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#12987905)

Irish children are forbidden to use electronic calculators in school for maths until late teenage years (and even in exams where calculators were permitted, you had to write "E.C." (electronic calculator) in big letters next to the answer to say you used a calculator - exam supervisors kept an eye out for that...), so that Irish people have the mental arithmetic abilities to rebuild Irish civilisation when stranded in a post-nuclear-holocaust hell world filled with the zombies or something like that.

Actually, I think it helps in day-to-day life: when I lived in the UK for a while, a thing that really stood out was that shop assistants AND customers would quite often believe the cash register before their own brains, whereas in Ireland, people just spot the mistakes. Basic arithmetical "common sense" was anything but common in the UK. I don't actually know when UK children are allowed calculators, but I bet it's earlier than Irish children.

So anyway, in junior cycle of secondary school, when begin you do trigonometry and logarithms etc, we still used trig and log table books. I couldn't find a good picture on line, but they are EUR1.90 from here for a standard-issue copy: arch=LOG+TABLES []

Re:I was taught to use tables in school in 1990s (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#12988004)

Okay, reading back over that, maybe we have better arithmetic at the expense of basic english grammar. Word order is pretty different in Irish, though, and we learn both english and irish, so maybe my brain is just a wee bit confused...

Related reading (1)

iamnotaclown (169747) | about 9 years ago | (#12987949)

Sean McMullen [] has written a captivating sf trilogy in which the world is run with the aid of "calculors" -- human powered computers. The slaves which power it are called components and given names such as ADDER14 and MULT3.

I liked it.

At least they balanced out (1)

infolib (618234) | about 9 years ago | (#12987954)

the gender imbalance in places like CERN []

I've heard from older physicists that in those early years the scientist-computer match was quite popular.
(It still is, but, well...)

Did they turn blue when they died? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#12987964)

We already know humans back then were subject to all kinds of viruses, just like Windows today.

Expensive Book... (1)

creimer (824291) | about 9 years ago | (#12987969)

The book is a bit expensive for $35 USD on Amazon. It's bad enough that you have to pay $50 USD or more for a good technical book. But $35 USD for a history book?! Sheesh... I'll wait for the paperback.

When those computers misbehaves... (1)

Calyth (168525) | about 9 years ago | (#12987987)

Did they spank them?

Sean McMullen's Greatwinter triology (1)

9gezegen (824655) | about 9 years ago | (#12988000)

If you want to read great sci-fi about human computers, try Sean McMullen's [] GreatWinter triology. In his books, overlibrarians develop primitive computers called "Calculator" using human power to help them control their world. They even have portable battle calculators, made up of around 50 man and help commanders make decision on the battle ground.

Kilogirls metric is still in use today... (2, Funny)

jeffmeden (135043) | about 9 years ago | (#12988018)

By World War II, in the United States, computing power was measured not in megahertz or teraflops, but in kilogirls.
For what it's worth, I still measure a computer's ability in 'kilogirls' but its not necessarily related to the processor power...

David Alan Grier? (1)

Dirtside (91468) | about 9 years ago | (#12988019)

I find it unlikely, but is this the same David Alan Grier -- the comedian -- who was on "In Living Color" and such? I haven't been able to find anything definitive yet, but I'm assuming it's just a coincidence.

That's got to be a pretty rare name, though...

Doctor Who: Logopolis (1)

PjSunray (193535) | about 9 years ago | (#12988028)

This post reminded me of the last Tom Baker Dr. Who episode, in which the Doctor traveled to the planet Logopolis to fix the Chamelion circuit in the Tardis. It's basically a planet entirely populated by "humananoid" computers, who constantly calculate complex mathematical computations in a vast distributed environment. Their calculations supposedly helped to hold the framework of space/time together. The Master threw a wrench into the works by strategically killing off specific Logopolis citizens, thereby weakening the space/time continuum. Seems clear to me that either the Logopolians hadn't thought enough about error checking/correction, or that the Master truly was a master of distributed networks.

Whoa!!! (1)

mritunjai (518932) | about 9 years ago | (#12988029)

I can't believe nobody wrote this yet... nobody reads articles and submissions anyways :=)

By World War II, in the United States, computing power was measured not in megahertz or teraflops, but in kilogirls.

WOW!! On side note, repetitive jokes involving 'kilogirls' are going to haunt /. for years to come just like beowulf jokes!!!!

... I have just such a book within reach ... (1)

ninjagin (631183) | about 9 years ago | (#12988031)

It's the "CRC Standard Mathematical Tables", 23rd ed., (c)1975.

This 23rd edition features upgraded interest rate information in the financial section, with compound interest and associated material from one quarter of a percent through twenty percent in intervals of one quarter of a percent.


The neat thing with this one is that not only do you get the tables, you also get all the formulas and breakdowns of dozens of proofs!

All in one handy volume!

CERN (3, Interesting)

Adelbert (873575) | about 9 years ago | (#12988044)

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.

THE David Alan Grier? (0, Redundant)

joeslugg (8092) | about 9 years ago | (#12988049)

You mean this guy [] wrote a book about computers and mathematics??
I give it pi snaps up and a big ol greek sigma snap...

So did they get viruses? (1)

harris s newman (714436) | about 9 years ago | (#12988053)

...and worms?

Engineer now a watered down term. (1)

infonography (566403) | about 9 years ago | (#12988059)

Once being an engineer had dignity, skills and nifty curled up bendy ties. Now it's downgraded to menial tasks Ceramics Engineer [Dishwasher], or even worse like getting your MCSE. [Minesweeper Consultant And Solitaire Engineer]
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