[Ads-l] "Human computer" as retronym & Hidden Figures

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Fri Feb 10 14:51:56 EST 2017

Inspired by this thread, I wrote my latest WSJ column on "Hidden Figures"
and the word "computer":


As usual, if you hit the paywall, you can get around it by Googling the
headline or following a social media link, like this one:


Thanks to "proud mom" Margaret Lee, I was able to connect to Margot Lee
Shetterly to get more historical insights. I highly recommend her book! The
movie is very enjoyable, but it takes a lot of liberties with the actual
history. For instance, in 1961 the West Area Computing Unit (shown in the
movie with the "Colored Computers" sign) no longer existed -- Langley's
segregated facilities were abolished in 1958 when NACA became NASA, and the
(human) computers were integrated into other divisions.


On Sun, Jan 29, 2017 at 4:20 AM, Margaret Lee <
0000006730deb3bf-dmarc-request at listserv.uga.edu> wrote:

> It is interesting that this topic has appeared on this list.  The author
> of the book, 'Hidden Figures,' on which  the movie is based, is my
> daughter, Margot Lee Shetterly.  My husband was an engineer at NASA
> Langley  and Margot had met the women that she writes about and that are
> featured in the movie.  I have seen the movie four times and have met the
> cast. The female mathematicians who worked at NASA before the advent of
> computers as we know them today were called 'human computers' because they
> did mathematical calculations by hand and verified the results on
> mechanical calculators of the time.
> I had dinner with Katherine Goble Johnson last week.  She is alive and
> well at age 98.
> You probably know that the movie has been nominated for three Academy
> Awards and was # 1 at the box office for two consecutive weekends. The book
> is still #1 on the NY Times Best-Seller list.
> Proud Mom,  Margaret Lee
>       From: Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
>  Sent: Saturday, January 28, 2017 8:36 PM
>  Subject: "Human computer" as retronym
> Just saw “Hidden Figures”, which recounts the role of three black women
> (Katherine Gobel Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughn) who worked as
> “computers”, i.e. mathematicians and engineers, at NASA during the height
> of the “space race” in 1961.  IBM mainframes were evidently gradually being
> phased in at that time, so there were computers (human) and electronic
> computers.  Cf. OED _computer_
> 1. A person who makes calculations or computations; a calculator, a
> reckoner; spec. a person employed to make calculations in an observatory,
> in surveying, etc. Now chiefly hist.
> 2. A device or machine for performing or facilitating calculation.
> 3. a. An electronic device (or system of devices) which is used to store,
> manipulate, and communicate information, perform complex calculations, or
> control or regulate other devices or machines, and is capable of receiving
> information (data) and of processing it in accordance with variable
> procedural instructions (programs or software)...
> “Chiefly hist.” Indeed—I’m sure I wasn’t the only viewer who kept
> interpreting the label as a metaphor for sense 3 “computer" (“She’s a
> regular computer”) instead of recognizing it as a historically accurate use
> of sense 1. Descriptions and reviews of the movie describe the three women
> and their co-workers as “human computers” or “women computers”, which would
> now typically be understood as suggesting that they were so good at
> computing or math that they rivaled the ability of real (i.e. electronic)
> computers, sense 3.  (Semi-spoiler: a sign outside a room that reads
> “Colored Computers” does *not* signal that the room contains a bunch of
> proto-iMacs.)
> But “human computer” or “women computers” in the reviews is actually a
> retronym (along the lines of "human poll” or “human translation") to help
> specify sense 1, not a metaphor for sense 3.  Senses 2 and 3 have
> essentially archaized sense 1.

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