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The Gendered History Of Human Computers

Many of us might have come across prejudiced phrases like ‘science is not a field for women’ or ‘women are bad at maths’ in our lives. But surprisingly the history of the scientific world gives a very different account of things. In the history of human computers, many levels of scientific work were open, even welcoming, to women. Indeed, by the early twentieth century computing and mathematical calculations were viewed as women’s work and human computers were mostly assumed to be female.

Terms such as ‘kilo-girl’ were used to describe a unit of machine labour, while the problem-solving horsepower of computing machines was referred in ‘girl-years’. And as we rightly condemn cases when talented women are prevented from pursuing math and science in the most prestigious posts, we should simultaneously also remember the role that women played in advancing mathematical and scientific knowledge.

History of Human Computers

The rise of human computers began with the predictions for the exact time and location of the Hailey’s comet. In a book published in 1705, the English astronomer Edmond Halley had predicted that the comet would return and that the laws of gravity could predict precisely when. But those calculations were too complex and brutal a task for any single astronomer. So, the French mathematician Alexis-Claude Clairaut decided to break the work up by dividing the calculations among several people. They then slowly computed the course of Halley’s Comet, reducing the math to an extraordinary series of baby steps. And even though the final calculations were slightly off—the comet rounded the sun two days early—it was the most accurate forecast till then. Hence, the age of human computers began.

By the 19th century, scientists and governments were beginning to collect reams of data that needed to be processed. They began to break down their calculations into smaller mathematical equations, and started to hire people to solve them. During that time, most of the human computers were young men. But as time went by, many realized that hiring women would reduce the cost of computation to a great extent. They could be paid as little as less than half of what men got. The growth of education and middle-class prosperity had also produced a generation of young women trained in math. So, when the Harvard Observatory decided to process years of astronomic data it had gathered, it assembled one all-female team of computers.


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The World Wars And The Rise Of Female Human Computers

During World War I, the Army hired a small group of women to calculate artillery trajectories. Women were selected for the job of human computers partly because the work was viewed as a low-status activity that did not require much intellectual fervor. Men with elite education generally didn’t want to take it up. These pre-electronic computation jobs were often seen as rote and de-skilled, hence were deemed as feminized jobs. Although, in many cases, women doing these computation jobs actually had to have pretty advanced math skills and math training. On top of that, the work would require superhuman endurance too.

During World War II, the need for computation exploded even more. Human computers struggled to calculate everything from economic problems concerning production to trajectories and end points for aerial bombs, anti-aircraft artillery, and the weaponry of aerial combat. By 1944, as the tech historian David Alan Grier documents, about half of all computers were women.

Space Missions And Human Computers

Soon after the war ended, the space race started. Several hundred women were hired as computers during this time. At its bases, NASA itself hired almost 80 black women as human computers at its base. Amongst them was Katherine Johnson, who was so revered for her abilities that she was personally asked to verify the flight path of NASA’s first mission to space. The astronauts didn’t yet trust the newly developed digital computers, which were prone to crashing. But still, it was not like discrimination did not exist. Women who asked for promotions got turned down: for women who wanted to be supervisors—particularly if that involved supervising men—the dream was still a faraway reality.

Meanwhile, human computers faced existential threat from digital computers. These digital computers worked with far greater speed, and handled complex equations with greater ease. However, women again became the original coders of these new digital brains. That was because in the early days programming, too, was seen as dull work. The earliest programmers for the ENIAC—the first US military-funded programmable computer—were entirely women. And though they ended up inventing ingenious coding techniques, they never received any recognition. When ENIAC was finally shown to the press, the names of the women who’d written the code were conveniently left out of the list.


Also Read: Shakuntala Devi: India’s Female Mathematician Who Became The Human Computer


In that sense, this gendered history of human computers stands in contrast to the obstacles faced by women in coding and computational sciences at present. It’s downright ironic then that women today must fight for equality in STEM fields. After all, history bears witness to the fact that it was their math skills that helped launch the digital age.

Picture Credit: smithsonianmag.com

Dyuti Gupta is a contributer with SheThePeople.TV.