Possible Antedating of "Computer"

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Fri Apr 11 18:51:59 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.

To me, this is clearly denoting a computing or calculating device. The clues

1) the use of "patent." It is differentiating between a person who computes
and a patented device that does so. In this case, the phrase "patent
computer" may be a transitional term between human and mechanical

2) the particular sense of "index." This is OED2 definition 2.a., "A piece
of wood, metal, or the like, which serves as a pointer; esp. in scientific
instruments, a pointer which moves along a graduated scale (or which is
itself fixed while a graduated scale moves across its extremity) so as to
indicate movements or measurements."

Phemie's actions are mimicking the movements of a calculating machine.

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