The Etymology of the Word “Computer”

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The other day on Twitter, I noticed a tweet fly by that was a screen capture of an article written by Stephanie Ricker Schulte and published by Sage Publications in 2008. The article, The WarGames Scenario: Regulating Teenagers and Teenaged Technology (1980-1984) is an analysis of the movie WarGames, but the portion of the article making the rounds on Twitter had to do with the extremely poor way that women’s contribution to the history of computers has been told, and especially this line about the origin of the term “computer”:

The original use of the word “computer” was to identify the (mostly) women in charge of “computing” target coordinates for military assaults (Moschovitis et al. 1999, 111).

I have not yet tracked down a copy of the Moschovitis book–which is cited elsewhere for this claim–but this appears to be false.

According to the Wikipedia entry on “computer”,

The first known use of the word “computer” was in 1613 in a book called The Yong Mans Gleanings by English writer Richard Braithwait: “I haue read the truest computer of Times, and the best Arithmetician that euer breathed, and he reduceth thy dayes into a short number.” It referred to a person who carried out calculations, or computations. The word continued with the same meaning until the middle of the 20th century. From the end of the 19th century the word began to take on its more familiar meaning, a machine that carries out computations.

John Ayto’s book Word Origins says this about the etymology of “computer”:

Latin computare┬ámeant ‘reckon together’. It was a compound verb formed from the prefix com-‘together’ and putare ‘reckon, think’ (source of English putative and various derived forms such as amputate, deputy, dispute, impute, and reputation). It was borrowed into Old French as compter, from which English got count, but English compute was a direct borrowing from Latin. The derivative computer was coined in the mid-17th century, and originally meant simply ‘person who computes’; the modern meaning developed via ‘device for calculating’ at the end of the 19th century and ‘electronic brain’ by the 1940s.

Wikipedia also has an entry for “human computers” which claims,

The first time the term “Computer” appeared in The New York Times was in May 2, 1892; the ad by the US Civil Service Commission stated:

“A Computer Wanted. […] The examination will include the subjects of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and astronomy.”

Wikipedia notes that teams of “computers” were used┬ábeginning in the 18th century to divide up the calculations need for works like The Nautical Alamanac, which was a British government publication used to assist navigating.

 

 

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