Kilo-girls: The Hidden Story Behind Supercomputers

Early computing devices were measured in kilo-girl hours because the world’s first supercomputers were women, not machines. Women, or human computers as they were known, were used for this numerical needlework because they were more careful than men and willing to work for half of what similarly skilled men would.

One of the earliest human computers was Nicole-Reine Lepaute, a mathematician and an astronomer who, in the 1750s, helped predict the return of Halley’s Comet. Over the years women human computers accrued significant achievements, including producing the logarithmic and trigonometric tables so France could decimalize trigonometry; indexing the vast writings of Thomas Aquinas onto coded punchcards; using astronomical calculations to develop the Harvard Classification Scheme; making discoveries that led Edwin Hubble to develop theories about the expansion of the universe; and computing math problems that would inform the technologies of the Manhattan Project.

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