29 June 2007

Love amongst the computers

I love to go around junk shops and second hand bookshops looking for quirky second-hand books. It was whilst browsing through all the more dog-eared fiction (always a sign that the contents are good), I once came across a book of romantic fiction. I wish now that I’d bought it, because I have, unfortunately, to relate its contents from memory.

It was about a handsome young chap who had fallen for a computer. He’d met her in an office, at work. Yes, I re-read the paragraph, somewhat startled; it was definitely a female computer. And, according to the author, he was besotted by ‘her’. Although naturally shy, he had made his feelings clear.

I glanced at a page. They’d gone to the corner shop, during the lunch-break, for a cup of tea. I put the book down and paused for thought. She must have been a Laptop computer, I imagined, but then the book was far too old for that. Perhaps she was a ‘Luggable’. Where did she pour the tea? I had a brief picture in my minds’ eye of an antique computer on a wheeled trolley, with valves sticking everywhere, and flashing lights, and trailing RS232 cables, escorted by a devoted man, glancing fondly at ‘her’. He gazed lovingly into her eyes, saying little. Yes, I thought, running his greedy hands over her keyboard, I’ll bet. Men!

They’d gone to the corner shop,
during the lunch-break, for a cup of tea’

Our hero wonders whether to take the
proffered crumpet or go back to his computer

At that point I was summoned from the shop to help my wife with her shopping. I meant to go back to buy the book and read on, but sadly I didn’t. I never found out if this office romance with a computer led to a long-lasting romance, silly misunderstandings, bitter recriminations or a torrid physical consummation, implied in those days by those glorious dots on the page. Did they watch the sunset by the old canal, talking of their plans for the future? Who knows, but if anyone else has the book please let me know.

The 1890 USA Census in chaos

It was some time later I solved the mystery. Originally a computer was a real person, often a young lady, whose work involved arithmetical tasks in commercial bookkeeping, processing census returns, elections, and in science. The first mention we know of the word of was in 1646 by Sir T Browne ‘The Calendars of these computers’, or T Swifte in 1704 ‘a very skilful computer’. It was only much later that these computers became accustomed to use mathematical instruments to assist them in their work. However, the prosthetic devices that eventually supplanted them had been around since Classical times. Strangely enough, even the Romans had shirt-pocket calculators based on the abacus, one of which survives. ‘Computing devices’ were in existence from the Bronze Age, looking rather like large bronze clock mechanisms, and used in astronomy; but they were extremely rare. It was the flesh-and-blood computer that did the hard slog, usually without any mechanical aid.

The Splendid Hollerith device being used
by a computer.

Hollerith’s tabulating system, which was funded by the US Government when they discovered that they were likely not to be able to process the results of the 1890 census before the next one in 1900, was only one of many devices to assist the hard-pressed computers; It was not just done with Cams, cogs, gears and rollers. Optics was employed, along with compressed air, and hydraulics. The most ingenious ones of all, used to solve partial differential equations, used elastic membranes, electric circuits in conducting sheets, and polarised light. By the 1950s, there were a vast number of mechanical devices that were used to solve equations, and process data.

‘I wonder if there is a version
of space invaders for this?’

All this technology was swept away by the introduction of the ‘Electronic Computer’, a term which meant that the human who did the work could now be replaced by electronics. The old computers, now displaced from their original work, changed their trade to become computer operators and programmers, ministering to the new-fangled ‘Electronic Computers’. Even the Database Administrators now owe the origins of their trade, in part, to the human computers who worked on the vast census databases of the nineteenth century. Yes, DBAs used to be computers.

..we called it ‘Little Blue’ then…..

For more articles like this, sign up to the fortnightly Simple-Talk newsletter.


  • Rate
    [Total: 0    Average: 0/5]

Phil Factor (real name withheld to protect the guilty), aka Database Mole, has 30 years of experience with database-intensive applications. Despite having once been shouted at by a furious Bill Gates at an exhibition in the early 1980s, he has remained resolutely anonymous throughout his career. See also :

Follow on

View all articles by Phil Factor