Early computing devices were measured in kilo-girl hours because the world's first supercomputers were women, not machines. Women, or human computers as they were known, were used for this numerical needlework because they were more careful than men and willing to work for half of what similarly skilled men would.
One of the earliest human computers was Nicole-Reine Lepaute, a mathematician and an astronomer who, in the 1750s, helped predict the return of Halley's Comet. Over the years women human computers accrued significant achievements, including producing the logarithmic and trigonometric tables so France could decimalize trigonometry; indexing the vast writings of Thomas Aquinas onto coded punchcards; using astronomical calculations to develop the Harvard Classification Scheme; making discoveries that led Edwin Hubble to develop theories about the expansion of the universe; and computing math problems that would inform the technologies of the Manhattan Project.
The demise of human computers was publically recorded in two important requirements when the Mathematical Tables Project was announced in the 1960s: that the computing operation be labor-intensive, and that female hires comprise no more than 20 percent of the computing staff. Do you think we need an open debate on how history gets written? Join the discussion on Vialogues.
Excerpts from the discussion:
@00:13 Sara Hardman: Research has shown that girls as young as 6-years-old already hold gendered stereotypes of programming and robotics. Reincorporating the work of women into our narratives of these fields is important as we continue to build women representation.
@00:32 RuthS: Women have played significant parts in computer science and computational number crunching since their creation. In fact, Ada Lovelace (born in 1815), has recently started being hailed as the first computer programmer.
@1:05 Ryan Allen: This could be a good way to dispel myths for young girls who think they are just naturally not good at math.