Propagations of Error

From The Information, by James Gleick:

In the information-poor world, where any table of numbers was a rarity, centuries went by before people began systematically to gather different printed tables in order to check one against another. When they did, they found unexpected flaws. For example, Taylor’s Logarithms, the standard quarto printed in London in 1792, contained (it eventually transpired) nineteen errors of either one or two digits. These were itemized in the Nautical Almanac, for, as the Admiralty knew well, every error was a potential shipwreck.

Unfortunately, one of the nineteen corrections proved erroneous, so the next year’s Nautical Almanac printed an “erratum of the errata.” This in turn introduced yet another error. “Confusion is worse confounded,” declared The Edinburgh Review. The next almanac would have to put forth an “Erratum of the Erratum of the Errata in Taylor’s Logarithms.”

Errors arose from mistakes in carrying. Errors arose from the inversion of digits, sometimes by the computers themselves and sometimes by the printer. Printers were liable to transpose digits in successive lines of type. What a mysterious, fallible thing the human mind seemed to be! All these errors, one commentator mused, “would afford a curious subject of metaphysical speculation respecting the operation of the faculty of memory.”Human computers had no future, he saw: “It is only by the mechanical fabrication of tables that such errors can be rendered impossible.”

Oh just you wait 😂

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