Monday, 11 March 2013

What’s in a Computer?

My computer suffered a cardiac arrest and I had to take it back to the manufacturer’s operating theatre. Fortunately the surgeon was able to resuscitate the machine while I waited. We think of computers as modern devices, but the word ‘computer’ predates the modern electronic machine by a long way.

I was reading David Crystal’s thoroughly enjoyable book By Hook or by Crook. In it he tells us that the word ‘computer’ comes from the Latin ‘computare’ meaning to sum up. The word existed as a verb in sixteenth century France, but didn’t cross over into English until 1631. It is first recorded as a noun in 1641 meaning one who computes. The mechanical computer didn’t arrive until 1897.

Before I joined the National Air Traffic Control Service I spent two years working in accountancy. It wasn’t the right job for me, which is why I eventually moved on to pastures new. When I started trying to get to grips with accountancy, in the early nineteen sixties, I was given a mechanical desk-top computer. It was a solidly made device with a bank of metal levers and a handle at the side. Computing figures meant setting the levers to appropriate values and turning the handle an appropriate number of times: a far cry from my current desktop computer. It’s major plus point was that it never broke down.




  1. It's hard now to imagine life without our computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones or other devices. And yet just 20 years ago the internet didn't exist. I remember going to a talk at work in 1994 about how my company (John Lewis) might make use of the internet. Perhaps a website showing the location of our shops, or advertising staff vacancies? Now, we take nearly £1 billion sales annually through the website, about 30% of our total sales. The speed of change is incredible.

  2. They'v made a major change to the lives of writers. Would we ever want to return to the world of manual typewriters.