Possible Antedating of "Computer"

James A. Landau JJJRLandau at AOL.COM
Sat Apr 12 00:36:39 UTC 2003

In a message dated 4/11/03 2:25:14 PM Eastern Daylight Time,
fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU writes:

>  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.

Compare "if we have a machine with an index of any kind, which, while the
generating line moves one inch downwards, moves forward as many degrees as
the generating lin is inches long <snip> the index will still measure the
area of the curve traced by the extremity of the generating line."

The above is part of a description, published in 1855, of a machine to
"integrate a curve" (i.e. to measure the area under a curve).  Note the use
of the word "index", meaning something which sticks out of a machine and
conveys numerical information.  I don't doubt that the 1869 quote is a
description of the same or a somewhat similar computing machine.

Quote is from James Clerk Maxwell, "Description of a New Form of the
Platometer, an Instrument for Measuring the Areas of Plane Figures drawn on
Paper" Trnasactions of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts, vol. IV (1855),
quoted in Herman H. Goldstine _The Computer from Pascal to von Neumann_
Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, page 42,. 43n

Also worth quoting: "The object of this machine is to substitute brass for
brain in the great mechanical labour of calculating the elementary
consistuents of the whole tidal rise and fall."  William Thompson, Lord
Kelvin, _Mathematical and Physical Papers_, vol VI, page 280, quoted in
Goldstine, page 43, 44n

        - James A. Landau

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