Possible Antedating of "Computer"

Michael Quinion TheEditor at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Fri Apr 11 19:04:22 UTC 2003

Fred Shapiro wrote:

> 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.

That is an intriguing citation. The word "patent" and the general
image suggests that a form of machine is being referred to. There
were a large number of attempts to create mechanical calculators in
the nineteenth century. It could be referring to a Thomas machine,
which was invented in the 1820s and was so successful that it was
still being sold almost a century later. But all such devices were,
so far as I know, usually called "calculating machines".

Michael Quinion
Editor, World Wide Words
E-mail: <TheEditor at worldwidewords.org>
Web: <http://www.worldwidewords.org/>

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