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I am looking for books on computers, in a now special sense:

https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/computer

noun

1 An electronic device for storing and processing data, typically in binary form, according to instructions given to it in a variable program.
‘The laws were designed to prosecute people who hack into computers and steal information.’

1.1 A person who makes calculations, especially with a calculating machine.

Once I have read an article that in 1950, obviously the second meaning existed only in the Oxford Advanced Dictionary.

Now, do you know a good book on these people before the advent of electronic computers. using pen and paper?

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It isn't a textbook, but Hidden Figures is both a book and a movie.

The same author, Margot Lee Shetterly, produced versions of the book both for adults and for young readers. The movie is quite uplifting. I haven't read the book, but assume it is the same.

History.com has an article about these remarkable women.

One of them: Katherine Johnson died this year. She is featured in the movie.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks indeed. These are about high mathematics, rocket trajectories and the like. I'm also interested in those who did business calculations, the more profane works. $\endgroup$
    – Gergely
    Dec 11 '20 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, business calculations were automated long before that era since they were more "regular". Start here (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punched_card) and click a lot of links. Find the IBM card sorter along the way. But the mathematics employed by Johnson and her peers was Analytic Geometry, which is now considered an elementary subject, but it wasn't then. I once knew a woman (lots older than myself) who earned her PhD for Analytic Geometry. Probably that isn't possible now. Math advances. $\endgroup$
    – Buffy
    Dec 11 '20 at 15:43
  • $\begingroup$ The book, while less entertaining, is considerably more informative than the movie. Perhaps as a class, the movie could be watched, and then the book recommended. Reference here is to the adult book, as I've never encountered, or knew of, the book for young readers. $\endgroup$ Dec 12 '20 at 4:50
  • $\begingroup$ @GypsySpellweaver, there is also an illustrated version for still younger readers as well as translations into many other languages. $\endgroup$
    – Buffy
    Dec 12 '20 at 12:31
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It is not clear to me what exactly OP is looking for, but one relevant book is: David Alan Grier, "When Computers Were Human", Princeton University Press 2005. The author served for several years as editor in chief of the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. He was inspired to work on the book when he learned that his grandmother had graduated with a degree in mathematics in 1921 and that some of her fellow female graduates went to work as human computers. The book covers about two centuries between the 1760s and the 1960s.

In June 2005 Grier gave a lively hour-long presentation at the Computer History Museum also entitled "When Computers Were Human", a video recording of which is available on YouTube.

One large early project, directed by Gaspard Riche de Prony, that ran from about 1790 to 1801 is described in I. Grattan-Guiness, "Work for the Hairdressers: The Production of de Prony’s Logarithmic and Trigonometric Tables", Annals of the History of Computing, Vol. 12, No. 3, Jul. 1990, pp. 177-185. The title makes reference to the following fascinating detail:

These calculations were done by the third section, a large team of between 60 and 80 assistants. Many of these workers were unemployed hairdressers: one of the most hated symbols of the ancien regime was the hairstyles of the aristocracy, and the obligatory reduction of coiffure “as the geometers say, to its most simplest expression” left the hairdressing trade in a severe state of recession. Thus these artists were converted into elementary arithmeticians, executing only additions and subtractions.

A key personality in the final phase of the history of projects involving human computers was the mathematician Gertrude Blanch (1897-1996), described in David Alan Grier, "Gertrude Blanch of the Mathematical Tables Project", IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Vol. 19, No. 4, Oct.-Dec. 1997, pp. 18-27, as follows:

Gertrude Blanch can be viewed as either the last and most important leader of human computers or one of the first numerical analysts for electronic computers. From 1938 to 1948, she was the technical director of the Mathematical Tables Project, the largest and most sophisticated of the human computing groups.

I originally came across Gertrude Blanch as author of the paper "Numerical evaluation of continued fractions", SIAM Review, Vol. 6, No. 4, Oct 1964, pp. 383-421.

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  • $\begingroup$ Indeed this is what I am looking for. $\endgroup$
    – Gergely
    Dec 17 '20 at 10:27
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Got a lovely cover... alternatively any textbook on computing with a publication date of 1939 or earlier.

https://www.amazon.com/Computing-Before-Computers-William-Aspray/dp/0813800471

Asprey (ed), "Computing before computers", Iowa State Pr 1990

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There's a chapter in Richard Feynman's autobiography, Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman in which he describes* writing a "program" for a roomful of human computers and, what it looked like when they were "executing" it.


* Describes at a pop-science kind of level. It's not an instruction manual.

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  • $\begingroup$ Oh man, I haven't thought about that book in years. I remember laughing so hard while I read it that I squirted water out of my nose. And the stories of Los Alamos were pure madlad craziness! $\endgroup$
    – Ben I.
    Dec 14 '20 at 15:23

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