Listening Topic: Math and Technology – Lecture on human computers

A. Listen to a lecture about human computers. Number the topics in the order they are mentioned.

___ Human computers in World War I and World War II

___ A book about human computers

___ A mathematical model of the orbit of Halley’s comet

___ The kind of people who worked as human computers

___ Division of labor

B. Listen to the lecture again. And answer the questions. Listen again if necessary.

1   What is the focus of the class that this lecture is from? __________________________

2   How many people worked together to calculate a model of Halley’s comet? __________________________

 How long did they work? __________________________

 How did the French civil engineer manage to prepare 19 volumes of math tables? __________________________

 How long did it take? __________________________

 What kind of work did human computers do in World War I and World War II? __________________________

 What type of people often worked as human computers? __________________________

 Why did the author of the book about human computers become interested in the topic? __________________________



3 5 1 4 2


Answers may vary slightly.

1   The history of the development of the computer

2   Three

3   For five months

4   He hired eighty human computers to do the calculations.

5   Six years

6   Calculations for maps and weapons

7   They were not math experts. They were often poor and couldn’t find other work. Many were women.

8   He found out that his grandmother had gotten a degree in mathematics in 1920.


A = Lecturer, B = Student 1, C = Student 2

A:   OK, so that’s some history in the development of the computer. Next week we’ll be talking about chapters 10 and 11 in your book, so please read those. Are there any questions? Yes?

B:   Thanks. I know that this might not be part of this class, but I’m just wondering about before we had computers. It seems like people must still have needed to calculate things. How did they do it before we had computers?

A:   That’s an excellent question, and I’m happy to answer it. It’s so interesting. Most of us don’t even remember what life was like before computers and technology became such a part of everyday life. Computers have been with us for so long now that many people – unfortunately not me – are just too young to have experienced life before computers. And many of us who are older have simply forgotten what it was like. But, yes indeed, humans had to work out large calculations before computers … think of all the progress made in astronomy for example … how did they do it? Well, people did it. Before computers, people did the computing. They were human computers – people whose job it was to do large calculations.

An early example of human computers was in the mid 1700s. A scientist wanted to make a mathematical model of the orbit of Halley’s Comet. You’re heard of Halley’s Comet, right? Anyway, this scientist got two of his friends to help him, and they worked together, doing calculations, for five months to make a mathematical model of the orbit of the comet. This is an early example of human computing.

Now, an interesting aspect of this is that people quickly realized that dividing the work – division of labor and specializing in different tasks – was really important. They just couldn’t do the work otherwise. For example, a French civil engineer who lived in the late 1700s and early 1800s wanted to prepare nineteen volumes – so that’s nineteen books – of mathematical tables. He started with a small group of mathematicians and they divided the work into a series of different tasks. Then he hired … I think eighty human computers to do the work. It still took six years to complete the work, but they got it done because they divided the work up. Another example of the work the human computers did was in the First World War. Actually they were used in both the First and Second World Wars. Both sides in the war used human computers. They used them to do calculations for maps and weapons. Now, you’re probably thinking of these human computers and imagining that they were all talented and very good – good at mathematics. One of the things I find most interesting about this is that most of them were not at all experts in math. Many of them only had basic skills. A lot of them were very poor and unable to find other work. Also, some of you might be surprised to learn that a lot of the human computers were women. In fact, one of the group of three who calculated the orbit of Halley’s Comet that I mentioned earlier, well, one of the members of that group was a woman. So, women were very much a part of this work.

If you find this topic interesting, I’d recommend a book called, When Computers Were Human by … let me see … Yes, its Grier, David Alan Grier.

C:   Could you repeat that please?

A:   Yes, of course. The title is When Computers Were Human and the author is David Alan Grier. The book talks about all the examples I’ve given and more, and it’s fascinating. He actually got into this topic because he found out completely by chance that his grandmother had gone to college around 1920 and received a degree in mathematics. No one in the family knew about this, so he started doing research, and that’s how he got into writing the book. Oh, we’re definitely out of time! I’ll be around for few minutes if there are any other questions. Otherwise, see you next week.

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