Marilyn doesn't Compute using a Computer

Marilyn is Wrong Copyright © 1997-1998 Herb Weiner. All rights reserved.

Ask Marilyn ® by Marilyn vos Savant is a column in Parade Magazine, published by PARADE, 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017, USA. According to Parade, Marilyn vos Savant is listed in the "Guinness Book of World Records Hall of Fame" for "Highest IQ."

In her Parade Magazine column of November 30, 1997, Marilyn discusses the origin of the term computer.

Sorry, Marilyn

How could you possibly claim that nobody still uses computers for computing? Did you intend to imply that you did not use a computer to calculate last week's answer to the Birthday Problem?

Among other things, I use a computer to check your answers. And Charlie Kluepfel <> uses a computer to calculate the circumstances of eclipses and factor numbers into primes.

Perhaps the most common computing task performed on personal computers is manipulating spreadsheets, using Microsoft Excel and similar products. Were you aware that personal computers did not even become popular until the Dan Bricklin and Robert Frankston wrote the first spreadsheet program, VisiCalc, in the late 1970s?

A Better Answer

Bill Jefferys <> was kind enough to send me a copy of his letter to Marilyn:
The origin of the term "computer" goes back considerably further than your answer would indicate. The term was originally a job title: it was used to describe human beings whose task was to perform the repetitive calculations required to compute such things as ballistic gunnery tables, navigational tables, and planetary positions for astronomical almanacs, in the days before electronic computers were invented. Many of these human computers were employed by the military services prior to and during World War II, producing tables that were essential to the war effort. Most of these individuals were women; they were not well-paid.

When their tasks were taken over by electronic machines, the term "computer" was appropriated to describe the new devices, since they were originally designed to perform the same kinds of calculations that the human computers had done. last updated June 30, 1998 by