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Link of the Week - When computers were human


Link of the Week: When computers were human

Image courtesy David Grier

The photo at right may look rather ordinary but in fact this office is much more exciting than it seems. The men and women working away at these desks are in fact a sort of human computer, employed by the Mathematical Tables Project in New York City in the 1930s and ’40s under a Works Progress Administration program to fight the ravages of the Great Depression.

The Mathematical Tables Project consisted of 450 ‘human computers’ — many of whom had been close to homelessness during the financial collapse. The large majority of the staff had not even completed high school, yet they were brought together to perform calculations for government and scientists in an era  before the first working general-purpose, electronic computer (generally agreed to be ENIAC, or “Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer”).

The Mathematical Tables Office Computing Floor shown in the photo above was split up according to arithmetic function. Workers were assigned to either addition, subtraction, multiplication, or (if they were deemed skilled enough) division calculations. Working from 1938 to 1948, they produced tables of powers, trigonometric functions, probability functions, and contributed to the Handbook of Mathematical Functions, the largest-selling book in scientific history. In fact, you’ve probably used material from the book yourself.

The Mathematical Tables Project was in a sense an early form of “crowd sourcing,” says David Grier, who introduced the project in the opening session of the Citizen Cyberscience Summit earlier this month.

For those of you who weren’t lucky enough to hear his talk, you can find out more about this group and the remarkable stories behind it in Grier’s book “When Computers Were Human” from Princeton University Press.

—Manisha Lalloo, eScience Talk

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