Nowadays when we talk about a computer, we immediately think of an electronic device. This was not always the case. There was a time when the term computer referred to a profession. The term started to be used at least from the early 17th century to refer to “one who computes”, i.e. does arithmetic calculations.

Organised human computing efforts can be traced back at least to when French astronomer Alexis Claude Clairaut set up a team to determine when Halley’s Comet would return. Subsequently, astronomy was to be a prime motivator for the creation of organised human computing. Demands for computational needs arose in connection with engineering, navigation and statistics endeavours. Military and war efforts also necessitated increasing computational needs, for example, in the determination of the trajectory of shells – something that would eventually lead to the commissioning of ENIAC, the first electronic computer, during World War II.

The work of human computers consisted in doing the calculations that nowadays are carried out by modern digital computers. Frequently their work was divided so that the computation could be carried out in parallel – a precursor of the modern parallel processing methodology in digital computers. In addition, to ensure the correctness of the calculations, teams of human calculators were frequently divided into two, with each doing the same calculations. The end results were then compared for accuracy.

Initially, the vast majority of human computers were men. With time, for a variety of reasons – which included lower wage costs – an increasing number of women were employed as human calculators. Eventually, women became the dominant working force. The association between women and computing was so strong that when ENIAC – the precursor of the electronic machines that were to replace human computers – was commissioned, a team of women was chosen to programme it!

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