Number Crunching

Erik Hoover grinchy at GRINCHY.COM
Fri Dec 17 19:21:53 UTC 2004

It strikes me on reading this that there is a less-strained metaphor if
"crunching numbers" and "number-crunching" refer originally to the
mechanical calculators or "adding machines" that were once commonplace
in business.

The noise of such devices can be quite, ah, crunchy.

Any retired accountants in the house?


On Dec 17, 2004, at 12:50 PM, James A. Landau wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "James A. Landau" <JJJRLandau at AOL.COM>
> Subject:      Re: Number Crunching
> -----------------------------------------------------------------------
> --------
> "Number crunching" meaning heavy-duty numerical computations is a
> strained
> metaphor.  It might have arisen from "numeric data processing" with
> the image of
> "crunching" for "processing".  I suspect that it is one of those "off
> the
> wall", "straight out of left field" metaphors that become popular
> because they
> are so far-fetched---the average user doesn't think of such an
> expression, and
> then is so pleased with such novel imagery that s/he can't resist
> using it.
> I have no hard evidence but I am fairly sure "number crunching" became
> a
> popular term, and may have been coined, circa 1972.  Why?  The answer
> will require
> some detailed computer history.
> The first generation (1948 - 1958) and the second generation
> (1958-1964) of
> computers fell into two categories: "business" (considerable data but
> relatively little processing of each input) and "scientific"
> (relatively little input
> but much processing).  The third generation (early 1960's onward)
> computers
> were mostly designed to handle both business and scientific
> applications, that
> is, they were designed to be "general-purpose".
> Then in 1972 Seymour Cray (whose Control Data Corporation 6600 was one
> of the
> pioneering third-generation computers) left Control Data to found his
> own
> company, based on a new concept.  Cray knew that the most common
> application in
> scientific computing was to solve systems of linear equations
> (remember the
> "two equations in two unknowns" of your high-school algebra.  This is
> the same,
> only "several thousand equations in several thousand unknowns").   So
> he built
> a computer, the famous Cray I, which was designed to handle the
> problem of
> linear equations.   Not only was the Cray I as fast as any of its
> competitors in
> other computer work, it was much faster, thanks to its design, on
> linear
> equations.
> The Cray I (which was a commercial success) and a handful of
> competitors also
> designed specifically for linear equation work were soon dubbed
> "supercomputers" (a term that is not commonly used nowadays.  Instead
> a computer like a
> Cray I is called a "vector computer".)  The work that they did was
> referred to as
> "number crunching", although "number crunching" never referred
> specifically
> to linear equations but could mean any problem requiring intensive
> calculations.
> I do not recall hearing "number crunching" before the Cray I went on
> the
> market.
>     - James A. Landau

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