What Did Computers Look Like In The Past?

Created on Jan 19, 2017 by Kathy Pinna
The 2016 film "Hidden Figures" tells the story of a group of African American women who were "computers" (people who computed numbers) for NASA. In a time before the computers that we know today, these (mostly) women took on the task of calculating the complex numbers that allowed our first astronauts to travel in space.

In 1822, Charles Babbage conceived of (but never built) a steam powered machine that could compute numbers; It would take more than a century until the first mechanical computer was actually created. In 1946, the ENIAC was built - it took 1800 square feet to house it. In the meantime, human beings were used to calculate numbers - and they mostly included female mathematicians, who were considered more suited to routine tasks. (Yes, discrimination against women didn't only include the lack of equal pay and the inability to vote!)

Of course, you're looking at this from your desktop computer, your laptop - or even more likely your phone. These are photos of some of the early "computers" from the past - people who used machines that are radically different from what we know today. The advantage of these computers? Before the internet, they couldn't be hacked!

Discover what computers looked like in the past: the evolution from human calculators through the introduction of early modern computer technology

Computing Division, 1924

Bonus Bureau, Computing Divison

At least they had (very large!) adding machines.

Mabel Roy Mouton

Mabel Roy Mouton

One of the NASA "computers", she went on to become the Assistant Chief of Research Programs.

Harvard computers, 1889

Harvard "Computers"

Click on this photo to read about the astronomy department "computers" in the 1880's and how they shined.


Even 1993 looks retro!

Chart Recorders and personal computer

1993 Vandenberg Air Force Base.

1965 school

Typewriting not Computers

Typewriters, not keyboards. Remember typing classes?

Learning to compute, 1916

Vocational Printing. Math. class. See 4168. Location:...

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson

Featured in the film "Hidden Figures", Katherine was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. She is still alive.


Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson

Mary was a computer and then an engineer at NASA.

Dorothy (Johnson) Vaughan

Dorothy Vaughan

The acting head of the West Area computers at NASA (an African American couldn't become the official head), Dorothy went on to become a computer programmer.

Oh, the paper!

New York City Welfare office

Computer print-outs in 1976. Are those checks??

Back to Top