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MarketInsight: The word “computer” was originally a job title

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The first “computers” were actually humans. It was a job title for people who did mathematics, usually high-level math. For especially difficult math problems like calculating the orbit of Halley’s Comet, there would normally be several or more computers working in unison on the same complicated mathematical equation in order to check each other’s work.

Many of these “computers” were women. The movie “Hidden Figures” told the story of three who helped NASA get to the moon. Much earlier, the head of the Harvard Observatory, Edward Charles Pickering, employed 80 female computers in the late 1800s and early 1900s to map the stars. The women, mostly from top-notch women’s colleges like Vassar, Radcliffe, and Wellesley, made a number of important scientific discoveries. Pickering took credit for most of their work and it is only recently that the true author of many of those revelations has come to light. The women called themselves “The Harvard Computers.” They were known in the demeaning vernacular of that sexist era as “Pickering’s Harem.”

During World War II, we began to build computers that were machines. Alan Turing built one that helped to break the famous German Enigma Code. The Germans thought it was unbreakable. Turing’s machine proved them wrong and helped win the war. The Germans had a similar machine that aimed the guns on the Battleship Bismarck.

It has been pointed out to me that the human computers were often called “computors.” Some have suggested a significant difference between “-er” and “-or” where there is none. One spelling is just more archaic than the other. But, it is intriguing to think of other occupations that have stubbornly held onto the more archaic “-or” ending. One day, will human Realtors be replaced by computerized “Realters” who will give you guided virtual reality tours of homes in your price range? I am an Investment Advisor. I make decisions about how to invest the money entrusted to us. In the future will people use an internet-based artificial intelligence investment “Adviser?” I hope not. I like to think human thought adds value to the process.

What about Prosecutors and Counsellors? Will Lawyers be replaced by computer programs? It seems unlikely, but imagine how quickly the scales of justice would weigh each case. A defendant wouldn’t even have time to sit down before the databank of computerized “Jurers” decided their case. And that brings us to the best one: Legislators. Computer experts keep telling us that every job can be done better by a computer and I am sure all of us can think of a politician we would like to see replaced by a cell phone. It is possible that, in the future, computer “Legislaters” will replace human Legislators. Someday, your children’s children may have to decide whether to vote for Siri or Alexa. That is, of course, if they vote at all. Perhaps their cell phone will have a voting app that does it for them.

Scott A. Grant is President of Standfast Asset Management in Ponte Vedra Beach. He welcomes your comments or questions at

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