Human Computers from Pioneer High School

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“For centuries, 'computers' were human beings - low-paid clerks doing simple math as part of a team performing complex calculations. Their humble work spurred advances in science, industry, national defense and, ultimately, in the invention of the computing machines that replaced them.” Computer History Museum

Before the development of electronic computing in the mid 1940’s, “human computers” were often utilized in order to solve mathematical problems and process data. Often, these human computers were women, as detailed in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.

Willow Run Laboratory, which conducted highly classified government research throughout the 1950s, made use of human computers to perform calculations based on data generated from their anechoic chamber. And these human computers consisted of female students from Ann Arbor’s Pioneer High School.

The girls were divided into two rows, each with their own Friden calculator (a typewriter-like instrument) and a sheet of paper to record their calculations. A former high school teacher sat at one end of the room overseeing the process.

A given formula was broken down into steps, recalled Prof. Thomas Senior, who was conducting research in aircraft detection. The first girl in each row was given the first step, and then pass it to the second girl and on down the line. The last girl would bring up the sheet, and if the answers in both rows agreed, they went on to the next formula. If they disagreed, the process was repeated.

“This was calculations in 1957-58,” said Prof. Thomas Senior.