About Computer


The word “computer” has a much longer history than you may think. Tom ventures through its long and calculated past.

Featuring Tom Merritt.



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Episode transcript:

My uncle said my grandma worked as a computer and I said you mean ON a computer and he said no, AS a computer and I said what was she a robot and he said I didn’t know anything

Confused, don’t be

Let’s help you know a little more about the word Computer.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the first recorded use of the word computer was in a 1613 book called The Yong Mans Gleanings by the English writer Richard Brathwait. He wrote “I haue read the truest computer of Times, and the best Arithmetician that euer breathed, and he reduceth thy dayes into a short number.”
Brathwait was using the term to describe a person who carries out calculations. A pretty common tactic in English called nouning a verb. The verb was “to compute” and the noun used for a person who computes became computer. Just like a person who rides is a rider or a person jokes is a joker or a dolphin who flaps is a Flapper.
So where does compute come from? As with many things in English it comes from the romans – via the latin computare – which was used to mean to count or sum up. Literally to cut strike or stamp together with. Something like a word describing a person who marked down tally on a clay tablet or some such thing.
It worked its way into French in the 1500s and then to English the next century. What’s fun about that is the word still exists in French – compter– meaning to count or add up. But when it worked its way back into French from the English word being used to mean a mechanical device, the French resistance to borrowing from English acted up and professer Jaques Perret suggested using ordinatrice elctronique, based on the word ordonnateur, someone who arranges things or puts them in order. Essentially electronic ordering up person. IBM shortened out ordinateur, and even tried to trademark, but it was too popular and was officially included in the lexicon.
OK so back to English. When did computer start meaning a thing not a person. Apparently 1897. At least that’s what etymonline says but it doesn’t give details or a citation. However that is in the time in which Charles Babbage was developing his Difference Engine, designed to aid in navigational calculations and his Analytical Engine, designed for more general uses. Babbage used punched cards that were being used to direct mechanical looms. Charles Babbage’s son Henry completed a simplified version of the analytical engine’s computing unit in 1888 and a successful demonstration of computing tables in 1906.
And here’s an interesting twist. A computer was not a profession until the 20th century. Nor was it a popular term for a mechanical device until the twentieth century. Human computers were used to compile tables in earlier centuries but it was World War I that made it a legitimate profession. Computers were people who produced map grids, surveying aids, navigation tables and artillery tables. As more men were sent to the front lines, most computer jobs were done by women. The same thing happened again during World War II. Several women with degrees in mathematics worked as computers for research related to and part of the Manhattan Project.
And people who worked as computers were the logical choices to work on setting up and maintaining electric computers. First *general purpose* electronic digital computer is usually acknowledged as ENIAC, which was completed in 1945. Six computers — the people — were selected to set up problems on ENIAC. The first six computers which you can call the first computer programmers were Kay McNulty, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman, Betty Jean Jennings, and Fran Bilas.
And from there the use of computer as a word for a person faded out. What we now call computers went from being electronic brains to electronic computers to just computers. To PCs and then phones. In fact the word computer may be in the midst of another transition as people more frequently use words like laptop, tablet and phone.
Whatever its future, here’s to the word computer and all the people and machines who have fit the description for more than 400 years.
In other words, I hope you know a little more about the word computer.