Possible Antedating of "Computer"

Fred Shapiro fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Fri Apr 11 18:24:28 UTC 2003

I need some help in interpreting a word-usage.

The OED's first use of the word "computer" in the sense of "a person who
computes" is dated 1646.  In the sense of a calculating machine, their
earliest use is dated 1897.

I have found the following 1869 citation, but I'm not sure whether
"computer" here refers to a person or to a machine.  Can anyone tell from
the context what the likely answer is?

1869 Marion Harland _Phemie's Temptation_ 12  Phemie made no reply.  Her
pen was slowly traversing the length of the page, at an elevation of a
quarter of an inch above the paper, her eyes following the course of the
nib, as if it were the index of a patent computer.

Fred Shapiro

Fred R. Shapiro                             Editor
Associate Librarian for Collections and     YALE DICTIONARY OF QUOTATIONS
  Access and Lecturer in Legal Research     Yale University Press,
Yale Law School                             forthcoming
e-mail: fred.shapiro at yale.edu               http://quotationdictionary.com

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