computer

Computer has a rather straightforward etymology, although its usage may be a bit surprising. The word was originally applied to people, not machines.

Computer is derived from the verb to compute + -er, a standard suffix that denotes a person that does the task of the attached verb. The verb to compute comes to us from Norman French and in turn from the Latin computare, meaning to calculate. The verb appears in English by the late sixteenth century. So, a computer is one who calculates, and the noun appears in English by the early seventeenth century. From Richard Braithwaite’s 1613 Yong Mans Gleanings:

I haue read the truest computer of Times, and the best Arithmetician that euer breathed, and he reduceth thy dayes into a short number.

And many of these human computers were women, as calculation was considered mundane and repetitive work, beneath the dignity of men to perform, despite the fact that such calculations were often highly complex, requiring a high degree of mathematical skill.

Computer was being applied to machines by the mid nineteenth century. From Phemie’s Temptation, an 1869 novel by Marian Harland (the pen name of Mary Virginia Terhune):

[Phemie] plunged anew into the column of figures. [...] Her pen was slowly traversing the length of the page, at an elevation of a quarter of an inch above the paper, her eyes following the course of the nib, as if it were the index of a patent computer.

The use of the modifier patent indicates that this mechanical sense is relatively new, and that readers would be accustomed to thinking of computers as people, not machines.

The use of computer to refer to a programmable, electronic, calculating machine appears shortly after World War II. The exact date is uncertain. During the war, the US and Britain made use of calculating machines to crack Axis codes, and the word computer was used to denote these machines. Most were mechanical apparatuses, but a few were electronic, although not yet fully programmable like a present-day electronic computer. In the early citations of the word’s use to denote an electronic machine, it’s often difficult to determine if the word is used for a mechanical or an electronic device.

For example, in 1945 mathematician John von Neumann wrote:

Since the device is primarily a computer, it will have to perform the elementary operations of arithmetic most frequently.

Here he seems to be referring to a mechanical computer, saying the electronic device will primarily serve the function of a mechanical device. But in 1946, Bell Labs researcher George Stiblitz wrote:

If the computer is such that new formulas are easily set up in it, it may be economical to use it in the solution of 5 or 10 problems.

Here Stiblitz is referring to a programmable, electronic device. And by 1947 the term digital computer appeared in the journal Mathematical Tables and Other Aids to Computation. But by 1950, the term was, without modification, widely understood to refer to the programmable electronic devices we’re familiar with today. From Philosophical Magazine of that year:

The problem of constructing a computing routine or “program” for a modern general purpose computer which will enable it to play chess.

Sources:

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, June 2008, s. v. computer, n., compute, v.

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