The fact is that June, my great-grandmother, was a computer. The fear is that my son is not. Ours is not a cyborg-mutation story, although that fate may await my great-grandchildren.

In 1924, “computer” was a human job description. Computers, mostly women, tallied and tabulated numbers in neatly inked rows—a repetitive, robotic task—for nine hours a day. These organic automata brainpowered number-crunching in banking and commerce in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In academia, some contributed remarkably to the physical sciences as advances in photographic technology spawned troves of new data, notably in astrology, that offered up their secrets to scrupulous womanly scrutiny. Stars were born, as pioneering women computers unveiled cosmic secrets economically, or “cheaper per kilo-girl hour” as Harvard Observatory’s director put it. Later, in World War II, lives were lost and saved as human mathematicians shivered over awful calculations in Bletchley....

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