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Issue No.03 - July-September (2004 vol.26)
pp: 42-49
Mario Aloisio , University of Malta
Like so many English words, <it>computer</it> derives from Latin and therefore traces its origins back many centuries. A link exists between it and Christianity's greatest feast—Easter. In fact, the word computer, or at least its Latin equivalent, has long been connected to astronomy, time, and the calendar. This article gives a short history of the word, beginning from its use in early Roman times up to the introduction of the digital computer.
Mario Aloisio, "The Calculation of Easter Day, and the Origin and Use of the Word Computer", IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol.26, no. 3, pp. 42-49, July-September 2004, doi:10.1109/MAHC.2004.17
1. A. Borst, The Ordering of Time (translated from the German by A. Winnard), Polity Press, 1993.
2. Ibid., pp. 3-4.
3. The abacus is still widely used in many parts of the world. Its absence from Western Europe between about AD 500 and 1000 is evidence of civilization's nadir there. In the late 11th and 12th centuries, many treatises on elementary calculation were written on the use of the counting board, and a new verb was introduced, to abacus, meaning to compute. A.W. Crosby, The Measure of Reality, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997, p. 44.
4. The book by G. Flegg, Numbers through the Ages, (Macmillan, 1989), contains an interesting section on the use of the abacus in Roman times. It also describes the abaci used by the Chinese, Japanese, and the Russians.
5. See, for example, L. Brown, ed., The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (2 vols.), Clarendon Press, 1993.
6. A. Borst, Ordering of Time, p. 20.
7. The Easter practices of the early church varied. In some communities, especially those of Jewish Christians, Easter was celebrated with a Paschal meal on the evening between the 14th and 15th day of the Jewish month Nisan. Elsewhere the feast became detached from the Hebrew luni-solar calendar and celebrated on different dates. Because the gospels recount that the resurrection took place on the Sunday following the first day of unleavened bread, the practice spread from Rome of celebrating Easter on the Sunday after 14 Nisan.
8. Some books on astronomy and others on calendars give methods of calculating the Easter date. A famous method is from Gauss who, circa 1800, derived an elegant formula using just a few variables and conditions. To know how to compute the Easter date, refer to the article on the church lunar calendar in The Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.orgcathen. See also H.V. Smith, J. Br. Astron. Assoc., vol. 87, no. 4, 1977, p. 417; E.G. Richards, Mapping Time, Oxford Univ. Press, 1998, pp. 354-378; and M. Aloisio,The Nature of Calendars,Publishers Enterprises Group, 2003, pp. 143-156; 208-213.
9. In the 5th century, Pope Leo was well aware of this problem and discussed it frequently with Bishop Paschasimus of Lilybaeum. The year AD 445 was one such year when the Easter computations, worked out according to the Eastern and Western practices, differed by one week. See S.C. McCluskey, Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998, pp. 85-86.
10. Some 700 years later Hermann the Lame, a Benedictine monk at Reichenau, wrote: "whence comes the error that the real age of the moon so often does not correspond to our reckoning, compotus, or the rules of the ancients, and why, as Bede himself admits and our own eyes confirm, does a full moon appear in the sky in most cases one day, and in others two days, before the computed date?"
11. Computus as a noun was also used in medieval times to refer to the set of tables and rules necessary for the same purpose (that is, for calculating astronomical events and movable dates in the calendar). See, for example, S.C. McCluskey, Astronomies and Cultures, for an account of Computus ; and M.R. Williams, "Building a World-Class Book Collection: The Tomash Library," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 23, no. 4, Oct.–Dec. 2001, p. 42, for an example of an extract from an actual 1488Computus.
12. In those times, nobody ever dared to put the time of the Creation at any more than a few thousand years. In the 8th century, the Franciscan monk and scholar Roger Bacon calculated that a person walking 20 miles a day would take 14 years, 7 months, 29 days, and a fraction to reach the moon. For some of the West's best-informed scholars, the extent of the universe could still be described in terms of walking. See A.W. Crosby, Measure of Reality, p. 23.
13. A. Borst, Ordering of Time, p. 36.
14. Ibid., p. 46.
15. Ibid., pp. 46-47.
16. C.A. Ronan, The Cambridge Illustrated History of the World's Science, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983, p. 207.
17. Until the 14th century, various arithmetical calculation methods were in use including the Arabic method of dust numbers; finger-counting, as described by Bede; and the counting-board or abacus method. Practitioners of these methods were called algorists in honor of the 9th-century mathematician al-Khwarizmi. Practitioners of a slightly different method in which all workings in the calculation was preserved were called abacists. The choice of the latter word is unfortunate because no abacus was actually used. I. Grattan-Guinness, The Fontana History of Mathematical Sciences, Fontana Press, 1988.
18. What is now called a line abacus appears in Chaucer's The Miller's Tale as the "augrym stones." D. Brewer, Chaucer and His World, Eyre Metheun, 1978, pp. 61-62. See also the entry under "augrim" in H. Kurath, ed.,Middle English Dictionary,Univ. of Michigan Press, 1956. In this edition, an augrim stone is described as "a stone or counter inscribed with an Arabic numeral and used in computing [often upon an abacus]."
19. The full name is usually given as Abu Jafar Muhammed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. The word algebra also comes from one of al-Khwarizmi's books, Kitab al-jabr wa al-muqabalah [Calculating by Restoration and Reduction].
20. In 1267, he wrote: "The calendar is intolerable to all wisdom, the horror of all astronomy, and a laughing-stock from a mathematician's point of view."
21. A. Borst, Ordering of Time, p. 85.
22. Ibid., p. 86.
23. See the "computist" entry in J.A. Simpson and E.S.C. Weiner, eds., The Oxford English Dictionary (20 vols.), Clarendon Press, 1989.
24. For an entire chapter on the history of bookkeeping, see A.W. Crosby, Measure of Reality.
25. Ibid., pp. 215-216.
26. A. Borst, Ordering of Time, p. 99.
27. For example, in Book VIII, verse 16. See, for example, J. Carey and A. Fowler, eds., The Poems of John Milton, Longmans, 1968, p. 814.
28. See G. Keynes, ed., The Works of Sir Thomas Browne, Univ. of Chicago Press, and Faber, vol. II, book VI, 1964, p. 419.
29. See, for example, J. Hayward, ed., Swift: Gulliver's Travels and Selected Writings in Prose and Verse, Nonesuch Press, 1942, pp. 324-325.
30. L. Hogben, Mathematics for the Million, Pan Books, 1967, p. 402. Hogben dedicates a long section explaining how the theory of logarithms has developed.
31. Among these were the British Parliament, offering a reward of£20,000, and the States-General of Holland who offered 25,000 florins. The Board of Longitude in England was created in 1714 specifically to judge claims to the British prize. It was disbanded in 1828 after the prize money had been settled and when its service was no longer deemed necessary. See D. Sobel, Longitude, Fourth Estate, 1995.
32. Often, these human computers worked from home. For example, to prepare the Connaissance des Temps —the first volume of which came out in 1679—the French astronomer Lalande employed a small group of people to do the computing work from their own homes. Later, the same method was adopted to produce the Nautical Almanac . See M. Croarken, "Tabulating the Heavens: Computing theNautical Almanacin 18th-Century England," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 25, no. 3, July–Sept. 2003, pp. 48-61.
33. One exception was Hollerith's punch machine, built specifically for the US 1890 census, which was called a statistical computer.
34. See, for example, D.A. Grier, "The Human Computer and the Birth of the Information Age," Joseph Henry Lecture of the Philosophical Soc. of Washington, 2001; F.L. Whipple, The Mystery of Comets, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986, pp. 42-43; and D.K. Yeomans, Comets, John Wiley&Sons, 1991, pp. 126-130.
35. H. Zemanek, "Central European Prehistory of Computing," A History of Computing in the Twentieth Century, N. Metropolis, J. Howlett, and G. Rota, eds., Academic Press, 1980.
36. D.A. Grier, "Nineteenth-Century Observatories and the Chorus of Computers," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 21, no. 1, Jan.–Mar. 1999, p. 45.
37. By the 1890s, it was common for observatories to employ women computers to classify stellar spectra. See, for example, P.E. Ceruzzi, "When Computers Were Human," Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 13, no. 3, July–Sept. 1991, pp. 237-244.
38. See, for example, M. Croarken, Mary Edwards: Computing for a Living in 18th-Century England," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 25, no. 4, Oct.–Dec. 2003, pp. 9-13.
39. P.E. Ceruzzi, "When Computers Were Human," pp. 242-243.
40. See, for example, D.A. Grier, The Human Computer, and D.A. Grier, "The Rise and Fall of the Committee on Mathematical Tables and Other Aids to Computation," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 23, no. 2, Apr.–June 2001, p. 28.
41. P.E. Ceruzzi, "When Computers Were Human," p. 240.
42. Examples include the fifth edition of H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 1964; and the 1965 edition of J.B. Foreman, ed., The New National Dictionary, Collins, 1965.
43. This is the most popular word used in Germany for the modern computer (apart, of course, from the English word itself, which has now become common usage). Other (older) terms include Elektronenrechner and Rechenautomat. Rechenmaschine and Taschenrechner are now reserved for the calculator, but elektronische Rechenmaschine also refers to a computer.
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