Saturday, September 06, 2008

when computers were female

Timed to coincide with google's 10th birthday, Nature is running a special issue with lots of pieces on "big data" this week. One thing that I found particularly intriguing, and that was completely new to me, is the story of the women hired as data crunchers between the middle of the 19th and the middle of the 20th century, who were referred to as "computers", as described by Sue Nelson on page 36 of the issue.

There's a wonderful quote in this paragraph of the essay:

In 1901, William Elkin, the director of Yale Observatory, expressed a view typical of the time as to who was best suited for this work. "I am thoroughly in favour of employing women as measurers and computers," he said. "Not only are women available at smaller salaries than are men, but for routine work they have important advantages. Men are more likely to grow impatient after the novelty of the work has worn off and would be harder to retain for that reason."

Even though the computers' work was mainly dull routine, the author also cites examples of women who made original contributions and built successful scientific careers on this occupation.

Full text is here, and appears to be open access.

Full reference:
Big data: The Harvard computers p36
The first mass data crunchers were people, not machines. Sue Nelson looks at the discoveries and legacy of the remarkable women of Harvard's Observatory.
Sue Nelson

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