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Best-Laid 'Plans' Become 'Programs'

We now "program." We used to "plan." Those two words mark the rise of modern technology and the passing of a traditional craft. As we well know, programs are the instructions that make an electronic computer do useful and interesting work. Computer programs were invented in the spring of 1945 by five scientists who ever after squabbled over which of them had conceived the idea. But while they fought over the invention of the "program," none of them claimed authorship of the word "computer."

"Computer" was a 19th-century British military term, given to people who calculated navigational and cartographic tables. By the 20th century, computing was a large profession that employed hundreds in the calculation of mathematical tables for business and engineering, as well as the military. The largest computing group began operation in 1938. It was a WPA project in New York City that employed 500 jobless workers as computers. It was not a glamorous career. Few entered an employment office yearning to perform 14-digit multiplication. But for the time, it was secure, steady work.

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Human computers were not "programmed." They "planned." Senior computers wrote the plans. Junior computers put pencil to paper and did the calculations. The term "plan" was briefly used by the early computer scientists, including John von Neumann, one of the five who claimed credit for inventing the "program concept." But the term "plan" was soon replaced by "program."

"Program" came from the Greek programma, literally "to write before." It originally described a public document affixed to a gate or door and eventually came to mean the announcement of any organized event. Soon it was used to name the list of music or performances at the event, and finally, it referred to the event itself. After the invention of radio, the word "program" went through a second transformation. It first referred to the broadcast of a concert, then any broadcast show, then any radio signal, and finally any electronic signal.

In 1943, the engineers at the University of Pennsylvania used the word "program" to describe the circuits that controlled the ENIAC, the forbearer of the modern computer. The word was soon applied to other forms of computer control, including the one that we know today as the computer program.

It took nearly 20 years for the electronic computer to fully replace its human counterparts. At first, human computers found ample employment in finding errors in computer programs. But after 1964, organized human computation had run its course in the United States. People could still do long division, solve differential equations by hand, or even make change without a calculator. But they no longer took the title of "computer" and they chose to "program" instead of to "plan."