Possible Antedating of "Computer"

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Fri Apr 11 21:17:58 UTC 2003

>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.

IMHO, this appears to refer to a machine ... perhaps an analogue computer?

Brief glance at U.S. patent documents prior to 1869 shows "calculator" and
"calculating machine", "adder" and "adding machine", (rarely) "reckoner"
and "reckoning machine", ... and (not so rarely) "computing machine".

I did NOT find "computer" (I don't claim an exhaustive search), although if
a calculating machine can be called a calculator then surely a computing
machine can be called a computer ... perhaps with a qualifier such as
"patent" or "mechanical", since at that time "computer" referred to a
person's occupation/activity (quotation from 1870 [referring to a
calculating machine]: "it is questionable if such an elaborate undertaking
would have been possible if the work done by the machine had been required
at the hands of even a much larger staff of computers than would ever be
available in a public department").

"Computing machine" is in patent application #60,475 (1866), for example,
while #18,711 (1857) employs the expression "implement or device for
computing or calculating".

-- Doug Wilson

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