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

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Jan 30 15:31:50 EST 2017


(I thought I sent this out, but just found it in my Drafts folder.  Seems to be happening to me more often, the draftier my mind gets. —LH)


> On 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’

Or just “computers”, since the other (electronic) kind hadn’t become the default variety yet.  A case of “marking reversal”:

STAGE I:   “computers”  [= human]
STAGE II:  “computers”  [= human] vs. “electronic computers”
STAGE III: “computers” [= electronic] vs. “human computers”
STAGE IV: “computers” [= electronic] 

> 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.  

I loved the ending when she was shown on screen, alive and well at age 97.  Nice to hear she’s still going strong.  Amazing story and very good film (and I’m sure the book is even better and certainly richer).  

> 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>
> To: ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.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.  
> 
> LH 
> 
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> 
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