The First Computers Were People

Before the advent of modern computers, the math behind some of science's greatest achievements had to be done by hand. This laborious work wasn't done by the scientists themselves—it was done by human computers, who were often women.

Why It's Important

If you've ever wondered how people ever got along without smartphones, much less calculators, try this on for size: the scientists who calculated when Halley's Comet would return in 1757 did it with goose-quill pen and paper. When the U.S. needed an nautical almanac in the late 1800s to give navigators data on the distances of the sun, moon, and planets, a roomful of people wrote the math out by hand. Even NASA hired humans to do pencil-and-paper arithmetic in the early years. As important as this math was for all realms of discovery, prominent scientists left the tedious long division to others. Those others, most often, were women.

Though early computers were sometimes male students, according to journalist David Skinner, women had largely taken over the role by the early 20th century—so much that the terminology changed. "Respected mathematicians would blithely approximate the problem-solving horsepower of computing machines in 'girl-years' and describe a unit of machine labor as equal to one 'kilo-girl,'" Skinner writes.

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Why This Is Relevant

Although tech today is dominated by men—Google boasts one of the highest proportions of women, at 17 percent—it's important to remember the important contributions women have made to science and technology. The trio that calculated the return of Halley's Comet in the 1750s? Among them was Nicole-Reine Lepaute, who had a scientific career in her own right. Maria Mitchell was the only woman to crunch numbers for the American nautical almanac, which she did after winning a medal for her discovery of a new comet in 1847 and before becoming an astronomy professor at Vassar College. And of course, NASA had the "Rocket Girls" and the "West Computers," the latter of which are featured in the movie Hidden Figures.

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Written by Ashley Hamer December 17, 2016

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