Think of the boxy grey desktop computer that sat on your desk, or the massive grey tower computer under your desk, or the lightweight shiny tablet computer in your handbag, or even the smartphone computer in the palm of your hand.
Now, consider Scottish-born Williamina Paton Fleming, who in the late 1800s was credited, according to Harvard Magazine, with discovering “10 novae, 59 gaseous nebulae, more than 300 variable stars, and the Horsehead Nebula in Orion”, along with recognising “the existence of hot, Earth-sized stars later dubbed white dwarfs”.
Today we call her an astronomer, but for much of her career she was employed as a “computer”, tasked with analysing photographic images produced at the Harvard College Observatory in the US.
The idea of human computers persisted long after Fleming’s time. The US space agency NASA published a detailed article on the subject, titled “When the Computer Wore a Skirt: Langley’s Human Computers 1935-1970”.
NASA says of its human – almost always female – computers that despite its “subprofessional” status, the work “paid much better than the majority of jobs available to women in the 1940s-50s. It also provided an entry for women into the field of aeronautical research at a time when most simply were not being hired as engineers and offered another career option besides teaching for those with degrees in the sciences”.
Although often referred to as a “human computer”, Shakuntala Devi was a different type of character, a woman who took an amazing talent for calculating numbers and turned it into a long and varied career as a performer, writer and motivational speaker.
Devi was born into a Brahmin family in Bangalore, India, on 4 November 1929. Her father discovered his daughter’s facility with numbers when she was three, while teaching her card tricks. He quit his job and took her out on the road, displaying her as a novelty act. She never received a formal education.
Her progress to international renown began in 1950, when she appeared on a BBC television program. She was asked to solve a complex maths problem, which she did in a matter of seconds, but was told her answer was wrong. Upon further checking, it turned out the BBC had calculated incorrectly, that Devi was right, and she thus became known as the “human computer”.
One of her most widely reported public appearances made it, eventually, into the Guinness Book of Records. At Imperial College London in 1980, Devi was asked to multiply two 13-digit numbers, selected at random: 7,686,369,774,870 × 2,465,099,745,779.
It took her 28 seconds, including the time needed to deliver the answer: 18,947,668,177,995,426,462,773,730.
In a 1990 edition of the journal Intelligence, education researcher Arthur R Jensen published an extraordinarily entertaining paper titled “Speed of Information Processing in a Calculating Prodigy”. The prodigy in question was Devi.
Jensen performed several tests of her abilities, finding that “cube roots could almost be called Devi’s specialty”.
“To ‘warm up’, she requested a large number of cube root problems, that is, extracting the cube roots of large numbers, mostly in the millions, hundreds of millions, and trillions. The average time Devi took for extracting all of these cube roots was just six seconds, with a range of two to 10 seconds.”
Jensen said the reason for testing Devi was that he “was curious, first of all, to see if Devi had the kind of autistic personality so commonly associated with such unusual mental feats”. He concluded that “her general appearance and demeanor are quite the opposite of the typical image of the withdrawn, obsessive, autistic savant”.
Jensen, it must be noted, was a highly divisive character in the study of human intelligence. After his death, on 22 October 2012, the University of California Berkeley noted in a memorial article that its former professor “spent much of his career defending and trying to explain his findings and statements”.
Devi, meanwhile, began to speak out about LGBTQ rights after the publication of her 1977 book The World of Homosexuals, which featured her research findings and interviews with same-sex couples in India and abroad. “It is not the individual whose sexual relations depart from the social custom who is immoral – but those are immoral who would penalise him for being different,” she wrote.
She also wrote fiction, books on mathematics and cookbooks, and became known for her study of astrology. Most recently she was the subject of a Hindi-language movie about her life.
She died in Bangalore on 21 April 2013.
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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