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D. Gibb, from the Mathematical Laboratory, University of Edinburgh, describes a Computer Desk in his book A course in interpolation and numerical integration for the mathematical laboratory, G. Bell & Sons, Ltd., 1915, available here:

Where computation is performed to any considerable extent, computer's desk will be found useful. Those used in the mathematical laboratory of the University of Edinburgh are 3' 0" wide, 1'9" from front to back, and 2'6 1/2" high. They contain a locker, in wich computing paper can be kept without being folded, and a cupboard for books, papers, drawing-board, arithmometer, or instruments. Each desk is supplied with a copy of Barlow's tables (which gives the square, square root, cube, cube root and the reciprocal of all numbers up to 10,000), a copy of Creller's multiplication table (which gives at sight the product of any two numbers each less than 1000), and tables giving the values of the trigonometric functions and logarithms

Question: Are there any available picture of this "computer desk" ?

I think that this may be the first recorded description of an workplace for numerical analysts...

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closed as off topic by Felipe Voloch, Emil Jeřábek, Suvrit, Igor Rivin, Mark Sapir Aug 18 '12 at 2:43

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I don"t know. However, the Deutsches Museen in Munich has a large display devoted to computing machinery from antiquity to mere "ancient history" (I think they have a Macintosh as an exhibit). If anyone has a picture on file, I bet they do or know about it. Gerhard "Ich Wuensche Nach Muenchen Gehen" Paseman, 2012.08.17 –  Gerhard Paseman Aug 17 '12 at 13:53
"I think that this may be the first recorded description of an workplace for numerical analysts..." I cannot prove this wrong but it seems highly unlikely to me in view of the fact that for centuries (not to say millenia) before this task was already carried out. I have a vague recollection of reading Gauss (I think, but definitely that period of time), while not describing the persons working desk, complaining on poor working habits of his (human) computer. –  quid Aug 17 '12 at 14:46
What is an arithmometer? –  Igor Rivin Aug 17 '12 at 14:51
@Igor: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arithmometer –  Papiro Aug 17 '12 at 14:53

2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I will interpret this question a bit freely:

There is a long history of humans performing computational tasks (not mathematics) as a profession, and the technical tools and tables they had.

The Computer History Museum has among many other things some nice pictures of mechannical devices used to that end online, see in particular http://www.computerhistory.org/revolution/calculators/1

The Barlow's tables mentioned in the text can be found in digital form here http://archive.org/details/barlowstablesofs00barlrich And, the LOCOMAT project collects together numerous digitized version of historical math tables and related info, see in particular http://locomat.loria.fr/locomat/digital-tables.html where also a link Crelle's tables (also mentioned) is to be found (year is 1820, to make it easier to find).

There is also a recent book When Computers Were Human by D.A. Grier on the people doing this and with the same title one can find a video taped talk online (on youtube for instance). [Disclaimer: I did not watch the video and have no detailed knwoledge on the content of the book, but it clearly seems relevant.]

ps: the justification for interpreting this so freely is that I think the question for some desks at the Univerity of Edinburgh is 'too localized' as long as there is no clear evidence they are in any sense special or of historical significance.

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@quid: Thank you for your answer and links. The desks at University of Edinburgh has historical significance because I think that this may be the first recorded description of a desk for numerical analysts... ;) –  Papiro Aug 17 '12 at 16:42
@PaPiro: You are welcome. Well, as I said I am not so convinced of this 'first', but let us not quarel on this detail :) –  quid Aug 17 '12 at 16:46

A little googling led to http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Extras/EMS_1913_Colloquium.html which quotes at length a report that appeared in The Mathematical Gazette in 1913, including the following:

...Professor Whittaker held his séances in the large basement hall, which has recently been fitted up as a mathematical laboratory. This, indeed, was the first occasion on which it had been used. Each student was provided with a specially designed desk, with a convenient book-rest fixed to the back, and with drawers and shelves for storing note-books, scribbling paper, graph paper, and books to aid calculation, such as Barlow's Tables and Crelle's Rechentafeln. At these desks learned professors, lecturers, teachers, and a few students, nearly eighty in all, totted up their columns of figures and drew their periodographs, and were quite elated when their totals came out right.

Finally, although it's about copyists rather than computers, I can't resist citing a little excerpt on ergonomics, from Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener":

Though of a very ingenious mechanical turn, Nippers could never get this table to suit him. He put chips under it, blocks of various sorts, bits of pasteboard, and at last went so far as to attempt an exquisite adjustment by final pieces of folded blotting-paper. But no invention would answer. If, for the sake of easing his back, he brought the table lid at a sharp angle well up towards his chin, and wrote there like a man using the steep roof of a Dutch house for his desk:—then he declared that it stopped the circulation in his arms. If now he lowered the table to his waistbands, and stooped over it in writing, then there was a sore aching in his back. In short, the truth of the matter was, Nippers knew not what he wanted. Or, if he wanted any thing, it was to be rid of a scrivener’s table altogether.

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