The Physical Infrastructure of Human Computing


If you cannot calculate, you cannot speculate on future pleasure and your life will not be that of a human, but that of an oyster or a jellyfish.
– Plato in Philebus

There is considerable evidence of the mainframe era, the rise of the PC, and the early internet, but the more mundane details of computing history are often lost to software updates and hardware trends. The era before digital computers, when “computer” meant a human performing calculation, has left considerable records of the “how” of this work: where it was done, for what purpose, and by whom. The work of scholars studying human computing, notably Grier and Campbell-Kelly, focuses on the social, political, and scientific aspects. We know the details of William Samuel Stratford’s Nautical Almanac in England and the long narrative of the Mathematical Tables Project in New York City, but little has been written on the physical infrastructures of human computing such as office layouts and furniture, or the ephemera like the worksheets used to complete calculations. Because most of the physical infrastructure exists only in snippets of written material or in the background of photographs, I will only sketch some of the physical objects used in human computing, and mostly focus on 20th-century projects.

This account omits discussion of mechanical, electronic, and digital computing aides for human computers. Those devices are well researched, and many artifacts and detailed descriptions exist. Instead, this essay focuses on the lost fragments of physical infrastructure, namely worksheets, offices and furniture, and posters and other ephemera.

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