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What did geeks do for a living before there were computers?

There are millions of geeks in the world today who work in technology (myself included).  Did geeks exist 100 years ago?  If so, what did they do for a living before there were computers?
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Who invented steam engines, telegraph, electricity....
If you look at patents from 100years ago geeks were a lot more inventive then - there aren't patents for 'getting on a steam engine at a station and off at another' as a business process.
Martin Send private email
Sunday, February 10, 2008
my name is here Send private email
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Steve R
Sunday, February 10, 2008

technology existed since the beginning of time; it has changed a lot, that's all.
Victor Noagbodji Send private email
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Biting the heads off live chickens at circuses?

Such a proud heritage :)
Jivlain Send private email
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Raised families and worked at farms, diary shops, commerce shops, the first industries making shoes, boats, whatever. Were writers and illustrators too. Worked at newspapers also.

It's a coincidence that I just read some snippet from an Alan Cooper interview:

"Programming is not an industrial activity. It is a unique activity that has a lot in common with pre-industrial craft, and yet has a lot of unique characteristics that I call “post-industrial craft”. Programs are made one at a time, and each piece is different. It’s not scalable and it’s not formulaic. There’s no magic bullet in pre-industrial craft. We can’t say we’re all going agile and everything will come up roses. It’s incredibly nuanced and takes years of study to get right."

"Post-industrial craft is similar but different. It is filled with innovation, unlike pre-industrial craft. Post-industrial craft software has massive interaction between parts and its abstracted notions presented in an abstracted notations. It’s in a perfectly brittle environment–all it takes is one bad instruction and the higher edifice comes crashing down. Software is intangible and inscrutable, as are the people that build it."
Joao Pedrosa Send private email
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Also, remember the term "computer" originally didn't denote a machine.  It was job.  Computers were people that sat around with pencil and paper and carried out calculations.

Many of the tables that you used to find in old engineering tables books, stats tables, etc. were developed by computers.
Vote to reclaim your rights!
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Almost anything. My grandfather could be classified as a "nerd" and he was a farmer.

I think we also have to get out the nerd="computer nerd" mindset. I have met alot of musicians who are complete music nerds. I have a friend who is a film & photography nerd (he works in film).

teambob Send private email
Sunday, February 10, 2008
teambob Send private email
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Somebody had to make those cool chipped flint tools!  I have this notion of all the big hairy hunters off charging around the countryside and some nearsighted awkward types discovering how to make really sharp spearheads, knives, etc.
AFTO Send private email
Sunday, February 10, 2008
I was wondering this myself.  Then I visited my aunt who had records of my family going back to the 1800's.  Turns out I had one ancestor who was an inventor. I had a couple of others who ran workshops or did furniture making.
Patrick Send private email
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Yeah, there are all types of geeks -- music and film geeks probably outnumber computer geeks.

Collectors are a big one -- notably coin and stamp collectors.  I used to collect a lot of stuff when I was young but stopped around when I got into computers.

There are history geeks too.
Anon Send private email
Sunday, February 10, 2008
"Also, remember the term "computer" originally didn't denote a machine.  It was job."

In other words, the geeks WERE the computers.
primary0 Send private email
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Well, if you have time, and play and tinker no matter what time period...

So, a guy who played around with electronics in 1834 came up with solid state refrigeration that we see in many camping coolers today (I even have one, they work quite well, and they are based on a electrical property discovered by a French watch maker in the 1800’s).

It is called the Peltier effect, and even some cpu coolers are based on this technology from 1834.

So, curious people will always find a way to play with neat-o technology, even way back then!

Albert D. Kallal
Edmonton, Alberta Canada
Albert D. Kallal Send private email
Sunday, February 10, 2008
got paid to bite the head off chickens at circuses.
duh ;)
Vat Send private email
Monday, February 11, 2008
Whatever their Asperger's allowed them to.
Monday, February 11, 2008
+1 teambob

Nerds or geeks are certainly not exclusive to programming!

The other day I was watching a TV show where a movie critic was talking about films currently showing. The guy was a complete movie-geek, the girl that was hosting the show was giving him this "what-a-nerd" look!
Just another poster
Monday, February 11, 2008
Comic relief in the Roman Circus.
Monday, February 11, 2008
I can't believe everybody missed the obvious. Radio. If you were a geeky kid 60-80 years ago, probably your big dream was to build your own radio set. You probably knew exactly which tubes you would use and what type of antenna you would put in the yard if only you had the money and mom would allow it.
Financial Programmer
Monday, February 11, 2008
Regarding ...

Tesla was a minor diety. On a bad day. The rest of us could only dream of aspiring to his level. I wouldn't group him in with the rest of us poor slobs.
Ryan Smyth Send private email
Monday, February 11, 2008
Check out the Baroque trilogy by Neal Stephenson, which has a lot of stuff about colonial-era geeks.
jacobm Send private email
Monday, February 11, 2008
>>> I can't believe everybody missed the obvious. Radio. <<<

The Altair 8800 came out about 30 years ago.  Before that one of the nerdiest things you could do was amateur radio.  Probably about half the kids who got their license in high school went in to EE. And since the number of programming jobs were expanding a lot ended up in computer jobs.

One interesting thing I remember from those days: If you went to some amateur radio (aka "ham radio") gathering it was easy to find because you just looked for all the cars with the whip antennas.  If you went to some computer club meeting it was easy to find because you just looked for all the cars with the whip antennas.  Getting in to computers was a natural follow on to radio.

As far as what to do for a living, it wasn't just EE,  but just about any kind of engineering, science, math,...
Monday, February 11, 2008
As pointed out by others here, 99% of whatever geeks there were among humanity didn't really have access to anything like today's computer hardware and software until maybe the mid to late 1970s-- and even then most of us were feeding punchcards to college or corporate mainframes or mini-computers, rather than playing with the brand new Apples from Wozniak.

No, before that most geeks had to be content with fiddling with technology and science in other ways. One major field offering such opportunities at the time was hacking cars. For there's all sorts of science and engineering ideas to be explored there. Aerodynamics, combustion, plain old mechanical physics, electrical systems, radio, etc., etc., etc.

And note that the essence of ANY hardware throughout history is generally the same as modern day computer hardware: that is, merely a form of frozen or fixed-in-place software. Just as mass is frozen energy, according to Einstein. In that sense, car engines, body shapes, and suspensions pose little difference from PC motherboards. For they are merely material manifestations of ideas and formulas spawned from the minds of men.

So many of us older geeks hacked cars-- at least until we finally managed to get our hands on computers.

I even have a page called 'What did geeks do before personal computers and the internet were widespread?' at describing my own journey from car hacker to computer programmer.
J.R. Mooneyham Send private email
Monday, February 11, 2008
"Programming is not an industrial activity."

That's why we say we "write" programs...
Steve Hirsch Send private email
Monday, February 11, 2008
Bicycles was how the Wright Brothers maintained their "technology" fix.
Monday, February 11, 2008
My father was an electrician.  He serviced the power and transformer stations.  I actually think some of the work involved could satisfy geek interest.
Monday, February 11, 2008
"Also, remember the term "computer" originally didn't denote a machine.  It was job."

"In other words, the geeks WERE the computers."

No, they were women. During WW2 the Manhattan Project hired thousands of women aged 18-24 at locations like Oak Ridge and Los Alamos to run off the nuclear calculations. Their job title was indeed computer.

They would work in huge open rooms at row after row of desks set side by side. Each one would do one operation on a data sheet and pass it to the girl on the right. It was a true pipeline architecture. Not one of them knew the entire formula and the final computation steps were done in a more secure area, so none knew the results either.

There were also large numbers of machine controllers. Instead of monitoring the uranium centrifuges (there were tens of thousands of them) with an electronic feedback controller, again they had young women sitting in front of the gages adjusting dials to keep the process within certain limits.

Must have been pretty boring work.
SumoRunner Send private email
Monday, February 11, 2008
Oh!  I saw a program on The History Channel about that -- the control knobs were on a long series of huge magnets.  You had to take off EVERYTHING with any iron in it, before you could move the control knob.

If you forgot, and left on a watch or something, it would stick to the magnet so strongly you'd NEVER get the watch back off the magnet.
Monday, February 11, 2008
I bet a lot of them were lawyers and politicians.  Such things have gotten all messed up lately because we've been distracted.
Billy Martin Send private email
Monday, February 11, 2008
they had Sword fights!
Patrick From An IBank Send private email
Monday, February 11, 2008
The answer to the OP: the more academically inclined geeks probably went into the sciences or engineering. Those less so inclined probably went into occupations where they could tinker, like repairmen of various kinds (TV and radio repair - the stuff USED to be field repairable.)

As far as hobbies go:

Not just amateur radio, but all forms of electronics hobbyist pursuits used to be really big: hi-fi and stereo were a big craze in the mid-1950s. Most of the stereo and hi-fi equipment accessible to middle class people in the 1950s was home built or built from kits, including even the speakers.

Heathkit, Allied Radio (Knight-Kit), Lafayette Radio were all major electronics kit suppliers. Allied Radio merged with Radio Shack around 1970 but the "Allied" part was dropped in the early 1970s, I recall, well before the advent of the Radio Shack computers. Heathkit hung on for a few years during the first wave of the PC boom in the late 70s with their own CP/M based systems.

Also, darkroom photography and some kinds of photography using niche equipment of the time like twin lens reflexes, SLRs, view cameras, and press cameras. Photography pre-1970 afforded tons of opportunities to be an equipment and technology geek. Of particular note are the "system" cameras like view cameras and press cameras with their interchangeable lenses and film holders. Also, the early SLRs like the Nikon and the Exakta had just about every external component interchangeable.

Model rocketry, mainly for adolescent geeks. Pre-1980, you could pretty much do any damned thing like you liked with model rockets, including flying large and powerful rockets that had a range of 1-2 miles. The FAA has *really* clamped down on this hobby with permitting procedures. So a model rocket with the equivalent of an Estes "C" engine or so is about as much as you'd want to attempt launching w/o government "coordination" today.

An idle and bright mind can find many ways to be entertained, and there have been enough of them/us around to make a business out of catering to the geek tendency.
Bored Bystander Send private email
Monday, February 11, 2008
Model rockets?

I was a member of this club when this was filmed.

In fact, I could be one of the kids in the film. ;-)
Monday, February 11, 2008
I think it's fair to say that the computer profession engaged a large segment of the population and created a venue for these people - a venue which had never really existed before on this scale.

Bored Bystander is right - the precursor was electronics.

But before the age of electronics > 50 years ago, I'd surmise that there wasn't any mass outlet for this kind of constructive mental tinkering activity and no room for modern day "computer people". (can we ditch the self marginalized "geek" moniker?)

Another sobering thought,...most of us in one way or another, owe at least part of our job & profession to Bill Gates & Co.

Without the standardization and commoditization of the PC/DOS/Windows platform the IT field wouldn't have developed in such an explosive, empowering and profitable fashion.
HS Send private email
Monday, February 11, 2008
They were hifi nuts and ham radio operators. They hung around at Fry's and Allied and Radio Shack (when it really was a shack). In earlier eras they might have collected stamps, or made cabinets, or carved wood.
Paranoid Android Send private email
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
I don't agree.

Simnply exiost a lot of "geeks" because we can.

Before, exist a lot of warriors & martial arts people, because that was the situation at that time.

Or exist people that build pyramids & that stuff. But call it "geeks" or "nerds" is insulting it ;)
Mario Send private email
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
Unfortunately in Ancient Greek and Rome time, geeks were probably slaves to teach master's spoiled bullied brats how to recite a speech or how to measure time from shadows. If they were good looking, then probably also be demanded to provide sexual services to masters. If they could endure labor inside forge, they may work there to perfect the weaponry.

In middle age, they may work inside monastery. Or as craftsmen.
Eugene Y Jen Send private email
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
J R Mooneyham, you *really* should relax more about people stealing the text of your web site. It's festooned with remarks about who owns the content and ends with "Anything you see below this point was put there by a content thief who stole this page and posted it on their own server." (Am I allowed to quote that?)

Honestly, that does no good and makes you look a bit of a prat, to use on old English word. There are a million more interesting web pages out there without any 'a - j m o o n e y h a m . c o m - o r i g i n a l' warnings or the like.

It's an interesting article and would look better if you get rid of them.
Graham Asher Send private email
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
"No, they were women. During WW2 the Manhattan Project hired thousands of women aged 18-24..."

The position of computer was around prior to this.  Either way it is the same thing he said.  People pumping out lots and lots of calculations.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Exactly!  Sure women did work as computers but the job title had been around since the 17th century.

So the person that originally said that a computer was job title is correct.
Lloyd Send private email
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Just my 2 cents. In high school many years ago we had a computer and had to get some stuff in Basic to work. I knew a guy who was a "geek" and had all the technology at that time but it held no attraction for me.

I didn't get started in software until I was 30 years old (college dropout) where I used a laptop (a/b drive, no hd) to store all my product I was going to sell. I spent WAY too much time writing macros to have the software do the work for me. Not enough time selling. Went broke and when I returned to the U.S. I got jobs working with computers. Internet was becoming popular (although I didn't realize I'd been introduced to the internet by a Russian friend had tried to interest me in a business to rival Western Union years earlier ... he was a telcom engineer and had a computer connected to the internet in the apartment we shared) and lo and behold I was one of those people with no academic credentials who could get computers to do things efficiently.

I've NEVER considered myself a geek yet a lot of people I work with do consider me that. I personally find those people extremely vague without much appreciation for reality. Some programmers also consider me a geek but those are programmers who believe all they needed to learn they learned already in school. I know real nerds and I'm not one.

My ancestors were who knows what in Ireland and mechanics (going back to 1850 which is all I really know about) in Germany.

Personally I think people who WRITE software are people with the confidence to say "I can do this" and have respect for reality and pride to get things to work. There are a LOT of people who are not like that.
Sunday, February 17, 2008

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