Friday, July 22, 2005



The Christian Science Monitor recently carried a review of David Alan Grier's (not that one) new book When Computers Were Human:

Though male scientists deemed creative mathematics beyond feminine abilities, they saw women as perfect for this kind of numerical needlework. One even measured computing time in "girl hours": A complex calculation might even require "kilo-girl-hours.".... Grier tells the tale of these human drudges of mathematical calculation. They came in with the 18th-century Industrial Revolution and quickly disappeared in the mid-20th as electronic computers proved to be faster and, eventually, more reliable.

One of the odder facts that stuck in my head after reading Doron Swade's The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer was that many human computers in Britain in the early 1800s were former hairdressers who had fled the French Revolution. I still can't figure out what on earth led from the one profession to the other. A fondness for symmetry, perhaps?

Incidentally, Swade's book is unique in that he built a working Babbage Difference Engine for the Science Museum in London -- a feat Babbage himself never managed. The thing's a monster, and marvellously impressive, though when I stopped by to see it the gears were frozen and the Engine half-disassembled for repairs.

So it really is the forefather of modern computers....

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