[SIGCIS-Members] Diagrammatic models of human computing

Paul N. Edwards pne at umich.edu
Sun Apr 19 08:04:06 PDT 2015

One of the very best examples of elaborate plans for human computers is Lewis Fry Richardson’s 1922 book about numerical weather prediction. He designed computing forms that would allow calculations of future weather to be performed in a kind of parallel-processing mode by a vast ensemble of human computers. He did a test calculation using his own forms, but it was a failure due to computational error amplification of a type no one understood at the time. 

Richardson wrote up an elaborate (and beautifully written) scheme for a kind of stadium filled with some 64,000 human computers (interesting number, that). He called this the “forecast-factory.”

 The ”factory” — really more like a numerical orchestra for global weather prediction — would have filled a vast theater with 64,000 human computers. The following three paragraphs are quoted from LF Richardson, Weather Prediction By Numerical Process (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922, p 219).

"Imagine a large hall like a theatre, except that the circles and galleries go right round through the space usually occupied by the   The walls of this chamber are painted to form a map of the globe. The ceiling represents the north polar regions, England is in the gallery, the tropics in the upper circle, Australia on the dress circle and the Antarctic in the pit. A myriad computers are at work upon the weather of the part of the map where each sits, but each computer attends only to one equation or part of an equation. The work of each region is coordinated by an official of higher rank. Numerous little ‘night signs’ display the instantaneous values so that neighboring computers can read them. Each number is thus displayed in three adjacent zones so as to maintain communication to the North and South on the map. From the floor of the pit a tall pillar rises to half the height of the hall. It carries a large pulpit on its top. In this sits the man in charge of the whole theatre; he is surrounded by several assistants and messengers. One of his duties is to maintain a uniform speed of progress in all parts of the globe. In this respect he is like the conductor of an orchestra in which the instruments are slide-rules and calculating machines. But instead of waving a baton he turns a beam of rosy light upon any region that is running ahead of the rest, and a beam of blue light upon those who are behindhand.

Four senior clerks in the central pulpit are collecting the future weather as fast as it is being computed, and despatching it by pneumatic carrier to a quiet room. There it will be coded and telephoned to the radio transmitting station. Messengers carry piles of used computing forms down to a storehouse in the cellar.
In a neighbouring building there is a research department, where they invent improvements. But there is much experimenting on a small scale before any change is made in the complex routine of the computing theatre. In a basement an enthusiast is observing eddies in the liquid lining of a huge spinning bowl, but so far the arithmetic proves the better way. In another building are all the usual financial, correspondence and administrative offices. Outside are playing fields, houses, mountains, and lakes, for it was thought that those who compute the weather should breathe of it freely."

Peter Lynch has a nice book on Richardson that reproduces the computing forms, and both he and I included François Schuiten’s lovely graphic representation of the forecast-factory in our respective books:

Lynch, Peter. 2006. The Emergence of Numerical Weather Prediction: Richardson’s Dream. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Edwards, PN. A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (MIT Press, 2010)

- Paul Edwards
> On Apr 19, 2015, at 10:41 , David Hemmendinger <hemmendd at union.edu> wrote:
> 	Another early source, from the time-and-motion studies pioneers:
> Process Charts, Frank B. Gilbreth, Lillian M. Gilbreth (1921), American
> Society of Mechanical Engineers.
> 	It's available at https://archive.org/details/processcharts00gilb .
> Among its symbols are "moved by boy" and "moved by messenger boy".
>  David Hemmendinger                           hemmendd at union.edu
>  Professor Emeritus            http://athena.union.edu/~hemmendd
>  Computer Science Dept.                          +1 518 346 4489
>  Union College, Schenectady, NY 12308       FAX: +1 518 388 6789
>> Flowcharting  was borrowed from industrial engineering. You can find
>> examples in textbooks of the era. Henry Leffingwell's writings on office
>> management have some interesting diagrams that could be considered
>> precursors to flowcharting but they were almost certainly not known
>> to Goldstine et al.  I would suggest looking at the Log for the penn
>> differential analyzer or the Ucla differential analyzer to see if they
>> treated problems the same way.
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Paul N. Edwards
Professor of Information <http://www.si.umich.edu/> and History <http://www.lsa.umich.edu/history/>, University of Michigan 
A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming <http://pne.people.si.umich.edu/vastmachine/index.html> (MIT Press, 2010)

Terse replies are deliberate <http://five.sentenc.es/> (and better than nothing)

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