I make a good deal of rhetorical puff in my talks by pointing out the shift in meaning of ‘computer’ in twentieth century science from ‘Hartree’s dad’ to ‘instructable woman’ to ‘machine’. Rather remarkably, even the committee handing out funds for computation was still making the middle assumption as late as 1963. A crystallographer, Kathleen Lonsdale, applied to the Government for funds to support a computer. They turned her down, but she turned to the great goat of the field, JD Bernal, who was able to write to them: “The DSIR have misunderstood Professor Lonsdales’s use of the term ‘resident computer’….The one is animate the other is inanimate.”
The source of the quote is the Bernal papers Mss Add.8287.J/Lonsdale in the Cambridge University Library. As for Lonsdale, she knew what she was talking about, having fifteen years earlier become an Fellow of the Royal Society; indeed, jointly with someone else, the first woman to join Geoffrey Jefferson [see the book] in that company. I’d also been vaguely aware before writing this that Lonsdale she was a Quaker and had been imprisoned in Holloway for non-cooperation with the war effort. Only on checking do I see that, surprisingly to me, it was the Second World War, not the First, when Lonsdale was 37.