Friday, September 3, 2010

When computers were human

The photo above may look rather ordinary but in reality this office is much more exciting than it seems. The men and women working away at these desks are in fact a sort of human computer, employed by the Mathematical Tables Project in New York City in the 1940s.

The Mathematical Tables Project comprised of 450 'human computers' mostly people with low incomes, who were close to homelessness. The large majority of the staff had not even completed high school, yet they were brought together to perform calculations for government and scientists in an era when computers were not yet up to the task.

The Mathematical Tables Office Computing Floor shown in the photo was split up according to arithmetic function. Workers were assigned to either addition, subtraction, multiplication, or (if they were deemed skilled enough) division calculations. Working from 1938 to 1948, they produced tables of powers, trig functions, probability functions, and contributed to the Handbook of Mathematical Functions, the largest selling scientific book in scientific history. In fact you've most probably used the book yourself.

The Mathematical Tables Project was in a sense an early form of crowd sourcing, says David Grier, who introduced the group to us in the opening session of the Summit yesterday. And for those of you who weren't lucky enough to hear his talk you can find out more about the group and the remarkable stories behind it in David's book 'When Computers Were Human' from Princeton University Press.