Back before electronics took over calculations, a calculator was a person's job title (and you needed skill to do that). What's that skill called?

A term for someone who can juggle many numbers, routes, and other information in their head at the same time, while re-arranging / re-assigning them to different workers.

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    can you provide sentence or usage case? Using "X" instead of the word you are looking for Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 22:11
  • In asking this question, you assume that there was a job such as you describe, with a “job title”. Presumably you have some historical basis for this. As you know, it is desirable to show the research that has led to this. as far as I know, the counting jobs were carried out by ‘clerks’, using the abacus. Or are you asking for a suitable term to be coined?
    – Tuffy
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 22:33
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    The non-formal term is "number cruncher".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 1:43
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    a term for the ability to ("What's that skill called?") ... not the term "for [that] someone". One question at a time please, ideally using an example sentence with a blank (I think people are interpreting your 'example', the 2nd paragraph, as the actual question). That being said, I don't think there's a single word for the ability of 'doing it in your head' ... perhaps: cognitive computational prowess.
    – Mazura
    Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 19:57
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    See Hidden Figures, the movie. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hidden_Figures Human computer.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 21:08

6 Answers 6


What is your source for the claim that such a job title was 'calculator'? My first job (in the mid-1960s) was at a very distinguished scientific research institution (5 Nobel prize winners on the staff at the time - and more to follow.)

My job was in the computer department. I was a temporary assistant computer, my permanent colleagues (female) were computers, and our boss was the chief computer.

There was a rather eccentric mathematician, in another department, who had an 'electronic computer' and part of my job was to take boxes of punch cards to a big electronic computer in another city.

Your description of the duties of the person you want to call a calculator is in line with those of the head of the computer department in my lab at that time. (She had graduated in mathematics, with high honours in a distinguished university).

There is no such job in the modern world, and therefore no job title that describes it in modern terms. The answer to your question then is that no such word exists.

In our modern admiration for all the things that electronic computing can do for us we should not forget the skills of such people as clerks in the Post Office who could add up a column of figures at a glance, or vehicle schedulers who could sort out in their heads a very good, maybe not universally the best, route to deliver ice cream to shops in awkward-shaped counties like Cornwall.

  • Well, actually there are people who do such things - and I'm looking for a word to describe them. True, might be 'computer' instead of 'calculator'. But, if I use such a term, it won't be read in the correct sense (because of changes in the language) - so I'm looking for a synonym, or something near to what I describe.
    – user3082
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 23:00
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    This is a really rudely-worded answer and is the kind of thing that turns new users off to StackExchange. Just because the term doesn't match your experience doesn't make it incorrect. There are lots of historical citations that suggest calculator and computer are synonyms, including "The History of Mathematical Tables" edited by Martin Campbell-Kelly and in "When Computers Were Human" by David Alan Grier. Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 11:21
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    @DavidRicherby – true, but starting an answer with "what is your source for the claim" followed by a list of personal credentials belittles the question and doesn't add to the answer. I agree that the OP probably should include an example for clarity, but I see this kind of tone too often in answers across StackExchange. Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 11:45
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    This answer doesn't sound rude at all to me. Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 12:26
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    @JeffThompson Asking for a source seems quite reasonable to me. I know historical references to this job being done by human "computers" - more often spelled "computors" - but I've never come across "calculator" as a job title or job description before this question.
    – alephzero
    Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 14:44

Wikipedia offers the term mental calculator:

Mental calculators are people with a prodigious ability in some area of mental calculation, such as adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing large numbers.

Mental calculators were in great demand in research centers such as CERN before the advent of modern electronic calculators and computers.

Human computer is another option:

The term "computer", in use from the early 17th century (the first known written reference dates from 1613), meant "one who computes": a person performing mathematical calculations, before electronic computers became commercially available. "The human computer is supposed to be following fixed rules; he has no authority to deviate from them in any detail." Teams of people were frequently used to undertake long and often tedious calculations; the work was divided so that this could be done in parallel. Frequently, the same calculations were performed independently by separate teams to check the correctness of the results.

Since the end of the 20th century, the term "human computer" has also been applied to individuals with prodigious powers of mental arithmetic, also known as mental calculators.

  • Agreed – this should be the accepted answer. The history of human computing often uses "calculator" as a job title and the act – for example, Martin Kelly-Campbell's volume The History of Mathematical Tables lists says "see Computer, Human" in the index entry for "Calculator, Human". Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 11:23
  • This reminds me of an indexing job I had, based on the now defunct SIC codes. Just to screw over my boss (who later got in trouble and deserved it for treating my so badly), I came up: dealers, coke. In fact, the idiot who blamed her didn't even realize a coke dealer could be a profession. Oil dealers, coke dealers. [sigh] There are many stoopid (typo mine) people in charge.
    – Lambie
    Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 21:05

What's that skill called? [later additional suggestion] if the 17th century "Computer" or 14th century "Calculator" names for master arith/math-matician is not what your looking for then we need to accumulate all your requirements to perhaps find a Greek variant that was commonly used prior to that.

logistician (modern uses, route planner / assigner of labour and resources)
Greek logistikos, skilled in calculating, from logistēs, calculator a variant of logician See current military usage

The first administrative use of the word was in Roman and Byzantine times when there was a military administrative official with the title Logista. At that time, the word apparently implied a skill involved in numerical computations.

Since others have mentioned arithmetic + mathematics and geometry seems not applicable The other applied forms I can think of are

Actuaries may solve your problem, Numerologists and Stasticians a(re)bound by numbers. Strategists and Tacticians logically come close to your target and just for good measure we have Tallymen

As answered above a computer [1] (one who computes) or computor was an early 17th century term. Alternatives include computist possibly used before 1646 [1] or listed at a later date computant. Notable pioneers in this field included Mary Edwards (c. 1750 – September 1815) was a human computer for the British Nautical Almanac Her daughter, Eliza Edwards (1779-1846), also worked as a computer [until...] Civil Service rules made the employment of women very difficult.

Side note The supposed first digital calculator was "The Arithmometer" or Arithmomètre not introduced till Patented in France by Thomas de Colmar in 1820 long after computers.

So for you quiz masters "Which came first the computer or the digital calculator?"

Personal experience. My Great Aunts reputedly lived over the age of 100 and worked with the navy, in The Great War (WWI), but would never disclose what they did, however the family mumbled they were computists. It would have been fun to say they were ComputeAunts!

[1] see alephzero's comment below for citations e.g used by Sir Thomas Browne in PSEUDODOXIA EPIDEMICA, Volume II Third Book, Chapter XIV, Gutenberg EBook "we have the account of a year in 365 days, exact enquirers and Computists will tell us, that we escape 6 hours, that is a quarter of a day." "Now it is manifest, and most men likewise know, that the Calenders of these computers, and the accounts of these days are verry different;" The Oxford calculators including Richard Swineshead "The Calculator" was the name given to a group of lead logical mathematicians founded Early 1300's


In the old days before electronic calculators we used a comptometer.

It was used by a comptometer operator. This was a highly skilled task, a (then) modern version of the abacus. The operator's fingers would form a cradle of fixed shape depending on one operand and dance among the rows and columns to obtain a quick result from the other operand.

I also know the word wrangler which I understand to be someone in the days before electronic calculators, who was proficient in calculating values such as log tables. I can't find a better reference than this.

  • "Wranglers" at Cambridge studied mathematics, not computation. They are two completely different subjects!
    – alephzero
    Commented Nov 3, 2018 at 15:13

I'll go with "tabulator". I had worked for ALCOA in Indiana during the 90s. One of the senior staff told stories of their earlier tabulation department, which involved longhand, double-entry bookkeeping on paper journals. "Double-entry", an unknown term for many, is the accounting practice that every debit entered on the books must balance out to an equivalent credit.


arithmetician vocabulary.com


someone who specializes in arithmetic; One who works out arithmetical problems; a proficient in the science of numbers

As in these older usages:

He was a natural mathematician, and was the most profound and original arithmetician in the Southwest. Rhodes, W. H. (William Henry)


You are a clever arithmetician, mamma; you do your sums and get your totals nicely. Dostoyevsky, Fyodor


I think I am getting into what they call compound interest, and, to say the truth, I never was a very quick arithmetician. Kavanagh, Julia


In his 1890 book " The teaching and history of mathematics in the United States ", mathematics historian Florian Cajori described Daboll as one of the " three great arithmeticians in America ".

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