Monday, December 18, 2006

"In those days, computers were people!"

Although I was not around then, I have often been told and have read that, prior to some time (generally in the 1940s), the word "computer" was understood to refer to a person, not a machine. Here are a few typical examples:
"Computers were people using desk calculators when Los Alamos began."

"In those days [1948], computers were people."

"It begins at a time when computers were people, when women numbering in the hundreds sat together in a crowded room performing simple tasks and functioning as a whole, as a giant information-processing machine."
However, a search using Google's new database of US patents reveals a couple of interesting things:

1) Before the end of the 19th Century, the word "computer" was already in use for mechanisms, without inventors feeling any need to explain or justify this use of the word. See, for example the descriptions in:

Interest calculator ("my improved interest-computer"), filed 1882
Tonnage computer, filed 1893
Computer and printer, filed 1898
Combined type writing and computing machine, filed 1898
Time computer and recorder, filed 1900
Computing attachment for typewriters, filed 1900

2) Google still needs to work on limiting searches to date ranges, since a majority of the items it returns in a search for pre-1911 patents are considerably later than that.

Updated 6/28/o7 to add: Looking at what Google currently returns for the search, the majority of items are actually pre-1911, but there are still a few glaring exceptions.