krpalmer: Charlie Brown and Patty in the rain; Charlie Brown wears a fedora and trench coat (charlie brown)
[personal profile] krpalmer
It just so happened that not long after posting about how I'd got an old computer working again, the hard drive in my current computer went bad. Although I think I've found a workaround for that while a more permanent solution gets worked through, I was able to realise how much time I spend fiddling around with my computer under normal circumstances: all of a sudden, I had the time to read books that I never seemed to have before. Instead of spending all my time reading books I'd bought but hadn't got around to, though, I did happen to reread one I'd got on walking into an independent bookstore and thinking I ought to get something there, a book about computing without benefit of electrical machinery...

I might have been attracted to "When Computers Were Human" because I knew how the word "computer" had once been a job title. Starting with the book's author realising what comments his grandmother had once made about taking university-level calculus back in the early 1920s had meant, the book traces how astronomers learned how, when something can't be modeled with a simple, elegant equation, it can be broken down into steps and calculated using brute force, and tracking this from predicting the returns of Halley's Comet to military applications during World War I to a make-work project during the Great Depression. The perhaps now more familiar ideas for the "Difference Engine" and "Analytical Engine" do get mentioned in their proper place, but in some ways this book's story parallels the development of electronic computing instead of leading into it. Within its own bounds, it's an interesting story, although one thing I found myself wishing was that it would say a bit more about just what sort of math a human computer might use once an assignment had been broken down into parts; I did get a sense that it might range from the calculus mentioned at the beginning to simple repeated addition, but not much more detail.

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