Secret Library

The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Computer’

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle considers the history and original meaning of a now ubiquitous word

Here’s a pub quiz question for you: in which century were the words ‘computer’ and ‘electricity’ first used in English writing? The twentieth? ‘Computer’ may lead us to that answer, but then we reflect on Michael Faraday’s important work on electricity in the previous century. And didn’t Charles Babbage devise a forerunner to the modern computer in his Difference Engine, some time in the nineteenth century? Perhaps that’s the answer.

But no: both words make their debut in the annals of English literature in the seventeenth century. And it was one man who helped to popularise both. But the origins of the term ‘computer’, in particular, are worthy of comment. The word obviously derives from the verb ‘compute’, which is from the Latin for ‘reckon with’ (from the prefix com- and the verb putāre meaning to reckon). But what about the meaning of the word ‘computer’?

First, to deal with the more recent and most familiar meaning of the word ‘computer’: the word first came to mean an electronic device used to store and communicate information (and all of its subsequent functions) only in the 1940s: the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1946. This is fitting. As is well-known now (or at least better-known than in the decades immediately following the end of the Second World War), the work of Alan Turing and other codebreakers at Bletchley Park – where Turing built his huge early computer, the Colossus – helped to shorten the war by several years.

But after the end of the war, America began to develop the computer for commercial use, and Britain hushed up its role in inventing the modern machine. Turing, shamefully, was never honoured in his lifetime, and his tragic end (dying of strychnine poisoning from eating a poisoned apple, having been forced to undergo chemical castration for his homosexuality) prevented him for getting the recognition he deserved. (The rumour that the logo of Apple computers – an apple with a bite taken out – was a deliberate allusion to Turing’s death is, by the way, not true.)

But ‘computers’ had been around for centuries – or, at least, the word ‘computer’ had been. And one of its earliest uses in English was in the work of an important seventeenth-century prose writer, Sir Thomas Browne. It is in Browne’s work that we also find early (and in many cases, the earliest) instances of words including ambidextrous, approximate, botanical, carnivorous, coma, complicated, cryptography, discrimination, electricity, elevator, ferocious, hallucination, indigenous, insecurity, medical, prairie, prefix, selection, and many, many more. I’ve blogged previously about Browne and his remarkable list of neologisms here.

Browne was born in Cheapside in London in 1605 and died in 1682, on his 77th birthday. He wrote on various topics pertaining to the natural world, and this would be the subject of his most ambitious work, Pseudodoxia Epidemica, which was published in 1646, although it was so popular it went through many more editions during Browne’s lifetime.

The full title of this book was Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths, although it is sometimes known simply as Vulgar Errors. Its purpose was to examine the widely held superstitions and beliefs of the time, and to correct those which were false; in many ways, Browne, a one-man debunking machine, was the early modern version of the TV show QI.

The context of Browne’s use of the word ‘computer’, in Pseudodoxia Epidemica, was a consideration of the difference in dates between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. When Browne was writing in the 1640s, Britain was behind much of Europe in still following the old Julian calendar, while numerous countries on the Continent had already adopted the Gregorian (which Britain would not do until 1752). Browne writes:

Now it is manifest, and most men likewise know, that the calendars of these computers, and the accounts of these days are very different: the Greeks dissenting from the Latins, and the Latins from each other: the one observing the Julian or ancient account, as Great Britain and part of Germany; the other adhering to the Gregorian or new account, as Italy, France, Spain, and the United Provinces of the Netherlands.

The context of Browne’s use of the word makes it clear that the word ‘computer’ is here being used to refer to someone who makes a calculation, specifically about dates. And this is the earliest known meaning of the term ‘computer’, a sense that the OED now categorises as ‘chiefly historical’: ‘A person who makes calculations or computations; a calculator, a reckoner; spec. a person employed to make calculations in an observatory, in surveying, etc.’

But Sir Thomas Browne didn’t coin the word ‘computer’. If anyone should get the credit for doing that, and even here we should bear in mind the usual caveat (that ‘first known use’ of a word does not necessarily equate to actual coinage of said word), then it’s a man named Richard Brathwaite (1588-1673), an English poet who published a 1613 book called Yong Mans Gleanings.

It is in this book that we find the earliest recorded use of the term ‘computer’; as Brathwaite’s use of ‘he’ makes clear, he was also referring not to a counting device or machine but to a person who does the calculating.

I haue read the truest computer of Times, and the best Arithmetician that euer breathed, and he reduceth thy dayes into a short number: The daies of Man are threescore and ten.

You can continue to explore the unusual stories behind well-known words with the surprising origins of the word virus, the history behind the word vaccine, and the reason why the word homophobia meant something quite different when it was first coined.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

One Comment

  1. There are fascinating accounts of Browne in The Rings of Saturn by W G Sebald and Cultural Amnesia by Clive James.
    ‘Life is a pure flame and we live by an invisible sun within us’