Summary of When Computers Were Human

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When Computers Were Human book summary
Computing repetitive calculations used to be a team sport: Why we needed human computers and why computers were invented.


8 Overall

7 Applicability

9 Innovation

8 Style


Usually, the word “computer” generates images of a powerful, programmable machine that can perform almost any task. However, a “computer” was originally a person who performed complex math. Some “human computers” were scientists who did advanced calculations, but most were workers who labored over the same types of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing hour after hour, day after day. Scientist David Alan Grier weaves a wonderful story of the history of computing, framed by the discovery of Halley’s Comet and its three subsequent appearances. The comet gives the story a nice structure that helps readers see the advances in computing over the past three centuries. Grier introduces colorful personalities and covers pivotal historical events in the rise of mechanical computing. getAbstract finds that this history book informs your understanding of how computerization advanced while also being a terrific read.

In this summary, you will learn

  • How Halley’s comet spurred the development of more accurate computing techniques;
  • How and why machines that could handle massive calculations replaced “human computers”; and
  • How IBM got into the scientific tabulation business.


Computing When Halley’s Comet Comes Closest to the Sun
In 1682, astronomer Edmund Halley discovered the comet that eventually came to bear his name. In 1695, he combined his findings in astronomy with Isaac Newton’s new theories on gravitation and planetary motion to deduce that the ...
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About the Author

David Alan Grier is an associate science and technology professor at George Washington University. He has previously published several articles on the history of science and he edits an engineering journal on the history of computing.

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