Ida Rhodes and the Problem with ‘Water Goats’

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As a professional reference librarian and amateur history buff at NIST, I have had the opportunity to become acquainted with all kinds of extraordinary individuals. In particular, I have been struck by the number of women who made important contributions to the development of the earliest electronic computers. One of my favorites is Ida Rhodes.

NIST computer pioneer Ida Rhodes

Ida Rhodes was among the world’s foremost early computer science experts. Credit: NIST

Rhodes, a NIST mathematician and computer expert from 1940-1975, designed the C-10 language used by one of the earliest computers, the UNIVAC 1. She also worked on computer translation of Russian, gave lectures to government agencies and private firms to promote the computers’ ability to make their work more efficient, and taught computer coding to people with physical disabilities.

In 1977, she developed an algorithm for computing the dates of the Jewish holidays that is still used today.

In Rhodes’ biographical file from the NIST Archives, there is a Newsweek article from Oct. 24, 1960, entitled “Machines are This Smart.” It tells the story of “water goatism,” which was a problem in machine translation that she worked to solve.

Referring to a poorly translated Russian article, it reads:

It is obvious from this sort of pidgin English that Mark I badly needs more instruction, specifically a set of syntactical rules to assist its word-matching ability. This problem seems fairly well in hand now, thanks to the work of Mrs. Ida Rhodes, a dynamic lady of 60 who is director of the mechanical translation group of the National Bureau of Standards.* Occasionally, she runs across a stickler which seems unsolvable like the one she calls the ‘water goat’ problem. It seems that the phrase ‘water goat’ kept cropping up in the translation of a Russian engineering paper until it was discovered that the words were the translation of the phrase ‘hydraulic ram.’ Until the machine can be taught semantics—how to derive meanings from the association of ideas in a word—water goatism will prevail.

(*Editor’s note: Aside from being called the Bureau of Standards for a brief period, NIST was the known as the National Bureau of Standards from 1901 to 1988.)

The Newsweek article about the wonders of computers ends on this note:

But in this issue of man versus machines, perhaps it is best to let a woman have the last word.

“The more we work with electronic machines,” Rhodes said, “the more awe we feel about the marvelous workings of the human mind. We call it ADAM—absolutely divine automatic machine.”

I wonder what she would think about the incredible capabilities of the machines we have today. It was because of her efforts, and the efforts of countless others like her, each of whom had their own “water goats” to contend with, that we now have a whole world of information at our fingertips. We can reach across the globe and chat with people or even machines (and lose at the ancient Chinese game of Go) because of what they started.

I think she would be amazed. I know I am.

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About Author

Katie Rapp

Katie Rapp is a reference librarian at the NIST Research Library. She is leading a team to prepare for the NIST Research Library’s future renovations, ensuring the physical space meets the needs of modern researchers. Her interest in history inspires many posts on the NIST library’s internal blog … and also on her Shakespeare blog, Or What You Will, which deserves more of her attention.

3 Comments

  1. Claudia Cuca on

    Thank you, Katie!
    Great article! I wish we, as a nation, taught the history of scientific discovery better. It’s not as straightforward as it seems, having many “fits and starts”. It is always fascinating.

  2. As one who still has to correct himself in not calling the NIST the National Bureau of Standards, I’m still chagrined to see a search result, even when using regex in a search, whole herds of water goats.
    We still have a way to go before we can actually use full natural language – any language, to interact meaningfully with our ubiquitous computers.

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