The History and Historiography of Women in Computing

For your first paper, I would like you to come up with a new insight about the history of early electronic computing based on what you’ve learned in class and from the readings so far. Talk about at least two people and at least two machines in your essay. Your essay should be grounded in the specific historical details of what each machine or person did,  as well as their historical contexts, but it should also discuss how the histories of these people and these machines have changed over time. In other words: What do we know now that we didn’t know in the past, and why? What are the different perspectives at play here? Think about their historiography.

Your goal will be to assemble information about these people and machines in a way that makes a new and unique point about the history or the historiography (or both) of women in computing. If you get stumped or aren’t sure where to begin, think about what you think is important for people outside our class to know, or think about what you’ve learned so far that’s been surprising or interesting.

No outside research is required for this paper—focus on the readings as your sources and resist the urge to google around for web summaries or more information because this exercise should really focus on you putting together the information you already have in new and interesting ways.

Length: 900-1000 words for undergrads; 1200-1500 words for grad students

Paper will be due September 22nd by 9pm, uploaded as a comment to this post. Your comment will not show up right away after you post it–I need to approve each one individually and will make a small selection of them visible a few days after everyone has passed theirs in. We will then talk about the posted essays in class, focusing on what we can learn from them about how to structure an argument and how to write a compelling essay that makes an original contribution.


  1. While reading the histories of women in computing in the 1940s and 1950s, one detail stuck out to me with each new story. That detail is the number of women citing supportive families, husbands, or both. In this essay I highlight stories told in Kurt Beyer’s biography, Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age, Jean Bartik’s autobiography, Pioneer Programmer and Stephanie Shirley’s autobiography, Let It Go. All three of these early computer programmers mention qualities of men they dated that weren’t good enough, as well as the men they eventually marry, that include support of their careers. Some of them even recount stories from childhood and young adulthood that illustrate the nurturing environment provided by their fathers.

    Grace Hopper came from a family that supported her education wholeheartedly and equally to her male siblings. As Kurt Beyer writes, “Grace’s mother was an accomplished mathematician, and her father, a life insurance executive, made no distinction when it came to educating his son and his two daughters. The Murray home at 316 West 95th Street in New York City, filled with books, provided an environment in which young Grace’s academic ambitions were supported and encouraged.” (Beyer 2012, 25) From an early age, Hopper was encouraged to pursue education. Later, she marries a man who supports her career ambitions. “At the time of their marriage, Vincent Hopper was a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at Columbia and was teaching at New York University. Together, the two academics created a life that permitted each to grow personally and professionally.” (Beyer 2012, 26) While having a supportive family and husband are certainly not the only reasons Hopper succeeded, they certainly helped position her for the opportunities she was given.

    But Grace Hopper is only one early programmer. She is not the only one who benefited from a supportive family. Betty Snyder recounts her home life growing up: “Both came from established middle-class families that emphasized learning. “I was one of eight children,” Snyder noted, “and had a very delightful home life–four boys and four girls–and my father always felt that education was terribly important.” (Beyer 2012, 188) While this single quote doesn’t prove that Snyder was treated equally to her brothers, it does indicate that the girls in her family had access to and encouragement to pursue education.

    Jean Bartik describes her supportive family in her autobiography. When Bartik spent a summer working on the family farm with her father, she writes “He told me that I was wonderful help and that he was proud of me.” (Bartik 2013, 27) By asking his daughter to do farmwork, Bartik’s father showed her that women are capable of succeeding at traditionally male labor roles. Bartik spent the summer bonding with her father and being told how loved and appreciated she was, which is not something all women benefitted from at the time. After college, she went on to meet her future husband through her work on the ENIAC. She married a man she really liked, Bill Bartik, who supported her having a career. Even though Jean Bartik was supported in her own career, she repeatedly put her husband’s career before her own. Here she describes needing to find a new job when the ENIAC was being moved: “Since Bill’s job was in Philadelphia, I was not going to Aberdeen with the ENIAC.” (Bartik 2013, 113)

    Stephanie Shirley also mentions ways she tried not to be seen as more successful than her husband. “I had got into the habit of playing down the career aspect of my life, reducing my employment at Computer Developments to four days a week so that my earnings would not outstrip Derek’s and ostentatiously spending the remaining day on chores such as laundry, so that his traditional male role as head of the household should not be threatened. (He had, to be fair, never expressed any insecurities on such matters, but I didn’t want to take any chances.)” (Shirley 2012, 64)

    Shirley also met her husband at work, and quit her position when they got married. Her insecurities around career ambition could stem from a more troubled upbringing. From the stress of being a refugee from Nazi Germany, to being adopted by an uneducated family, Shirley did not have the same advantages that some early women programmers, like Grace Hopper had. Where Hopper threw herself into her work rather than personal relationships, Shirley deferred to her husband’s career early in life despite the fact that he never asked her to.

    Shirley’s account also highlights the difficulties of finding a mate when you are an ambitious woman. She broke up with a boyfriend because, as she writes, “I realized that I was still developing while he was not. He was happy with his place in the world, whereas I wanted more. And while he was certainly not stupid, I knew that I was outstripping him intellectually.” (Shirley 2012, 49) She also describes the internal struggle of finding her identity as a girlfriend, compared to that of a wife: “I had to stop playing a part, to stop playing down those qualities that made me who I was – my intellect and my curiosity and my restless drive to have an impact on the world. It was one thing to pretend to be someone else, in order to fall in with a man’s understanding of what a girlfriend’s role should be and thus to oil the wheels of a relationship in the short term. It was a very different thing to build my whole life on that pretense.” (Shirley 2012, 49)

    After meeting and dating Derek Shirley, it took Stephanie some time to agree to marry him. “What I ultimately realized was that he was, simply, a good man: gentle, solid, dependable, honest, unselfish and upright – more like Uncle than my father, though much cleverer and, indeed, probably cleverer than me. As such, he was a thoroughly suitable choice as a lifetime’s partner. But it took time for all of this to sink in.” (Shirley 2012, 59) Despite the fact that Shirley externally valued her husband’s career over her own, she was able to accept a partnership with him because of his ambition.

    While the histories of Grace Hopper, Betty Snyder, Jean Bartik, and Stephanie Shirley don’t dive deep into the personal support from the men close to them that these women received, it is interesting that these four early programmers, from both the US and England, mentioned, at least in passing, this same detail about their early lives. While these women may have been comfortable working and building a lasting career at a time when women were expected to aspire to becoming wives, mothers, and homemakers, they still were not all comfortable replacing their husbands as the highest earner.

    Looking back on these stories from 2016, we see a tech industry that is dominated by men in technical roles, and a significant, documented wage gap between men and women. Though progress has been made in the last several decades, we are long way from equality. Observing family and spousal support in early women programmers makes me wonder if we could get more women in technical roles today if we promote the idea that men should be more openly supportive of the career ambitions of the women in their lives, whether it be wives or daughters or sisters or friends.

    This is not to suggest that women can only succeed with help from men, merely to offer a suggestion to feminist men who don’t know how they can positively contribute to a system that favors them.


    Bartik, Jean Jennings. 2013. Pioneer Programmer: Jean Jennings Bartik and the Computer That Changed the World. Edited by Jon T. Rickman and Kim D. Todd. Kirksville, Missouri: Truman State University Press.

    Beyer, Kurt W. 2012. Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age. Reprint edition. The MIT Press.

    Shirley, Dame Stephanie, and Richard Askwith. 2012. Let IT Go – The Memoirs of Dame Stephanie Shirley. 1.2 edition. AUK Authors.

  2. Our Obscure Beginnings

    Is it possible to be written out of history in today’s age? Given our extensive ability to share our voices and to immortalize our ideas within digital spaces, is it possible for individuals involved in the creation of the new fields of today to be erased or excluded from the historical records we are creating?

    It happened in the 1940s, when women were hired in laboratories to examine photographic emulsions. It happened during WWII when the need for workers out shadowed the societal norms that were in place at the time. A time when the marriage bar that prevented married women to work was overlooked during WWII as jobs that were previously out of reach to women became in dire of able bodies. The history of computing and the history of women in computing seem show a difference in timelines, in the stories and controversy regarding those who played major roles. These inconsistencies vary depending what version of history you are referencing.

    Given that the evolution of computing is the foundation for how our society functions today, this topic should have a bigger presence. However, just like how quickly women were erased from the labor force once the war ended, we have erased them completely from historical record by omitting their stories and the impact their accomplishments had on the future of computing. We live in a society that has become involved in conversations at large regarding topics of race and gender. Where the standards are being challenged, and the norms are being rewritten. In moving forward in the evolution of the digital age, we’ve come to realize that the past has gaps that need to be filled in, facts to be corrected and ideas to rediscover. Our society as a whole might find it interesting and surprising to know that the history of computing and even the history of women’s labor did not in fact propelled forward after WWII but suffered an ebb and flow of progress and eventually a lack of opportunity for women in a field where they played a major role. In examining the lives of women like Jean Jennings Bartik and Grace Hopper and the accomplishments in their work with machines like the ENIAC and the Mark I, we can begin to understand how important it is that women are written back into the conversation of computing and the influence that the understanding of these histories have on the creation of new ones.

    Jean Jennings Bartik, one of the operators who worked on the ENIAC released her autobiography in 2014 where she narrated her life and her career in the field of computing. Her story comes out 69 years after she began her career as a human computer. In her book, she candidly explains her entire life and we can see her unfold as a person and as a programmer. She was a woman who initially thought she might be a teacher or a nurse, professions that were suitable and expected for her gender during her time. However, she ended up making history unexpectedly. Hers is the story of a woman who fell into the profession of an operator (now considered a programmer) and became one of the first of her time. One can argue after reading her book that she almost stumbled upon the opportunities and projects that she became a part of. Her story is memorable and relatable because she’s successful and because she was lucky enough to be one of the few women who continued to work in this field after WWII.

    Jean stands out as a woman who was didn’t fit into a mold. During a time when women were steered into fields that were viewed as feminine or adequate for a woman’s intellect, Jean challenged those stereotypes. She was smart, determined to learn and successful. In her book, she talks about the thrills of success in making history when the ENIAC was first revealed to the world. She talks about the let downs of not being recognized for her work. Her book also shows examples of how women’s accomplishments were treated at the time. Male engineers were viewed as more valuable than women operators. In Jean’s case, she takes back quite often, the credit of her work when others have taken the credit from her. She talks about her and other women involved in the ENIAC being ignored as the world marveled at the very work they had created and she makes the very good point of indicating how the media never got it right. These women making history were stripped of their presence and the identity they had created for themselves, and were placed back into the stereotype that society had deemed appropriate for them. Whether it was treating the ENIAC operators like “refrigerator girls” as she points out in her book or doing a very poor job in reporting about the unveiling of the ENIAC on February 14, 1946.

    Grace Hopper is another successful narrative of a woman who broke outside that mold. However her story is not only of successfully breaking through the fence to join the elite but the story of a woman who was able to brand herself in a way that made it difficult to forget her. Grace Hopper is different from the narrative we see in Jean because Grace represents a different type of woman. Grace was older, she was educated, with an established and esteemed career, she was married and for all intents and purposes, she was a woman who already had an established life. However, during WWII she left her career as a professor and enrolled in the Midshipmen’s School. After graduating she went to work at Harvard on the Mark I computer, becoming the “third programmer of the world’s first computer”. Like Jean, Grace Hopper seemed to have fallen into this new profession that even at the time had no real name. Although she was an educated women and a professor in her own right, she was still viewed as simply a woman and as such someone who didn’t need more than basic training. She was received with the stereotype of the time and she had to endure gender tensions amid learning to work with a machine like the Mark I. It was a difficult position, what women in this type of labor force experience. They had to move past the stereotypes and gender tensions and work with machines that did not come with any technical support. Women in the field of computing as it was then, had to figure out how to work with and troubleshoot machines like the Mark I and the ENIAC as they went along. They had to educate themselves in learning about the inside and out of these machines, essentially transforming themselves into experts under crucial times when mistakes could cost lives. The difference between Grace Hopper and Jean Bartik and why history remembers Grace Hopper is in the details. Grace Hopper because an icon, a brand. She understood that in order to be remembered she had to be recognized, she had to be noticed by the media. Grace Hopper unlike Jean and the rest of the ENIAC girls was an individual woman breaking into the elite, as one woman among a sea of men. The ENIAC girls on the other hand were a nameless, faceless group defined by the machine they worked on. This identity that they acquired did not assist in helping them be remembered but did help the world in forgetting who they were.

    The battle or race to be the first in any given field is a coveted position that everyone and anyone wants to get. The reason for this is because “first” are memorable, they are powerful in the sense that they define a breakthrough, and establish a new frontier. It is for this reason why our history demands “first” whether it’s in the history of computing or in any history. These “facts” are what define what is important and what is memorable. However it is difficult for history not to get it wrong. When we compare the work that Grace Hopper did with the Mark I computer and the Jean Bartik and the ENIAC we need to understand that these machines are not the same, nor do they attempt to address the same issues. The Mark I was designed in 1930 and installed February 1944. Its abilities involved calculating ballistic trajectories and is considered an electromechanical computer because it used automatic codes that told the computer what operations to perform. The ENIAC was commissioned in 1943 but wasn’t finished until 1945. Its main purpose was to calculate ballistic trajectories and general calculations. It was highlighted as a computer that could perform large quantities of calculations at a record speed. The ENIAC unlike the Mark I needed to be rewired manually for each problem. In determining which of these machines came first, the timeline alone can determine which was computer is truly the first. However, the impact and significance of these machines is difficult to determine because these computers although similar in purpose were designed and built differently.

    It’s easy for the details in history to become obscure and forgotten, to be replaced by those who would and could take advantage of the opportunity to rewrite history. The trajectory of these women’s careers is full of opportunity in fields that are very niche. As we move forward into the future of the Digital Age is it possible for those involved in the emerging fields of today to lose their voice? Given that we lead our lives almost exclusively in digital spaces, is it possible to fall into a Jean-like narrative where the justification of our accomplishments is needed? I refer to especially fields where gender and race continue to be a challenge, where a women isn’t considered an engineer and other examples. Will it be easier for those studying the historical records we are continuously leaving to determine what are the “firsts”? Or will it be more difficult to determine given the large amount of data we leave behind?

    Bartik, Jean. Pioneer Programmer. Jean Jennings Bartik and the Computer that Changed the World, Truman State University Press, 2013, Kirksville, Missouri (36-52, 92-121)

    Beyer, Kurt. Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age. The MIT Press, 2009, Cambridge, Massachusetts, (35-71)

    Light, Jennifer S. When Computers Were Women. Society for the History of Technology. Technology and Culture, 1999 vol 40.3, (455-483)

  3. Leah Kosmin
    History of Women in Computing
    22 September 2016

    The True Hero

    History is not a storybook. It is not filled with definite heroes and villains who battle to determine the fate of the earth or plot lines that all connect to a definite. History is imperfect, always changing and full of people without distinguished roles. It is important to address all the images of history, whether they be negative or positive, in order to benefit the future. WWII demonstrates this idea of “heroism” and what it truly does to people. Grace Hopper, the ENIAC, the Colossus, and Stephanie Shirley display the flawed side of history as well as the romanticized version. The struggles of individuals and groups must be discussed or else the perfect hero image inaccurately represents history.

    During WWII, many great women assisted on the home front due to the majority of males fighting on the battlefield. Grace Hopper was the epitome of a perfect hero. At age 38, Hopper left her comfortable lifestyle as a tenured professor to join the navy. She was “the first woman to graduate with a doctorate in mathematics from Yale…the third programmer of the first modern computer” (Beyer 205). However, Hopper had one imperfection: alcohol. While working on the Mark 1 with Howard Aiken, he was merciless and sexist and made his dislike of Hopper blatantly obvious. This caused Hopper to “drink[] during the week and even on the job” (Beyer 176-177). Hopper was trapped in the chains of heroism, attempting to fit the expectations that had been placed upon her by this title to the point that she felt she could not get help. As her friend Berkeley so aptly put it, “it was the intensity of Hopper’s strengths…that paradoxically fueled her addiction,” (Beyer 205). Essentially, heroism enhanced Hopper’s addiction. Hopper’s issues with depression and alcoholism are often brushed aside to maintain her “hero” status. No doubt was Hopper unique and influential, but she was severely damaged in that not only did she have several issues but could not even deal directly with them.

    Never before had such rapid change occurred with technology than during WWII. The ENIAC, built by Eckert and Mauchly, was capable of calculating trajectory and solving a math equation in fifteen seconds. Although the creators of the ENIAC were no doubt intelligent, six other women, the ENIAC girls, were essential in its success. Programmer was the official title of these women, but they worked with hardware, almost as much if not more, than with software. This was challenging as the women would often find themselves physically “crawling around inside the massive frame… locat[ing] burnt-out vacuum tubes, shorted connections, and other nonclerical bugs” (Light 470). The word “nonclerical” refers to how woman’s work as human computers was viewed as feminized. Their work was hardly girlish and yet they were patronizingly referred to as ENIAC “girls” instead of women and rarely received due credit. When the ENIAC was finally demonstrated to the public, Jean Bartik recalls, “nobody congratulated [ENIAC girls]” (Bartik 99). The ENIAC women were essential to the machine’s success, yet have only been discovered recently. These women worked tirelessly for their country and should not be forgotten about in fear that making a statement of the significant role women played at the time would glorify the women over Eckert and Mauchly.

    The greatest heroes often go unnamed. The ENIAC represented a breakthrough in technology, but the Colossus made a more direct impact in the war, informing the allies the of the German’s position on D-Day. Without this crucial information, D-Day may have gone much differently. Yet, so little is known about the Colossus because after the war all but two were destroyed on government orders, while its programmers, mostly women known as the WRNS, were sworn to secrecy. At Bletchley,“ Operators had to repeatedly set and re-set the machine and manage paper tape input and output for each run” (Hicks 14). For the Colossus, Tommy Flowers is given the majority of the credit for his work with The Colossus, in which he is deemed the “hero.” But are not all these women heroes as well? These women, who “worked to the point of exhaustion”, suffering from extreme heat and time constraints, pushed through pain in order to serve their country (Hicks 15). The ENIAC girls have been named, but WRNS remain mostly unidentified to this day. These are women who did not ask for recognition but still should have received it for their contributions.

    Until she wrote her book, Let it Go, Stephanie Shirley was merely the name of a German refugee. Her story is important not because she will ever be listed as the first programmer of some machine, but because of her resistance to give into societal expectations: the expectation that women can never move up in the working world. Instead, when Shirley realized her lack of success in attempting, “to progress up the Post Office hierarchy, it made sense for me to try somewhere new” (Shirley 60). Shirley shares the dark periods of her life saying, “I relate this not because I am proud of any of it but because it must say something about the kind of person I am” (Shirley 49). This statement is crucial. Instead of hiding her struggles, wearing the cloak of heroism and holding her head high, Shirley chooses to share the many struggles in her life, realizing the importance of the truth. Truth in history, good or bad, is important because it lays down the stone path for the future. If Shirley never shared her challenges, her strength would be disregarded. Shirley is so much more approachable than Hopper because of the issues she addresses.

    Although much of the history of women in computing has been hidden for so long, it is important to face the ugly as well as the beauty in history. The legacy left from Hopper, the ENIAC, the Colossus and Shirley shows how in the end, greatness is made of individuals who are imperfect and not faultless heroes. When society recognizes the brilliance that can come from flawed people and the strength that comes from struggling, people can strive to create change even in the smallest ways.

    Works Cited
    Bartik, Jean, Jon T. Rickman, and Kim D. Todd. Pioneer Programmer: Jean Jennings Bartik and the Computer That Changed the World. (Kirksville, MO: Truman State Press, 2013).
    Beyer, Kurt. Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009).
    Hicks, Marie. Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017).
    Light, Jennifer. “When Computers were Women.” Technology and Culture, 1999.
    Shirley, Stephanie, and Richard Askwith. Let IT Go. (Luton: Andrews UK, 2013).

  4. Samuel Furr
    Professor Hicks
    Women in Computing History
    22 September 2016

    The Geese That Never Cackled: How Britain’s Obsession with Secrecy Removed Them From the Computing World Stage

    There is no doubt that the United States is the current world leader in computing. However, when electronic computers were first emerging, the U.S. was still playing catch up to Britain. At this time computers were hidden from the public eye, being used top secretly for the war effort. Women programmers in both America and Britain were sworn to secrecy during WWII, but after the war there was a massive difference between how both literal and women “computers” were treated. In the United States the ENIAC and Harvard MKI were celebrated and shown to the public, whereas in Britain the Colossus computers were either stored in secret or torn apart completely. However, the loss of physical computers to Britain was not nearly as devastating as the loss of knowledge—WRNS were sworn to secrecy on pain of death—and were forced to return to their normal lives as women in Britain. This is in stark contrast to women like Grace Hopper, who went on to be one of the most influential figures in computing history. America eclipsed Britain in the computing field post WWII because Britain was obsessed with secrecy. By muting the WRNS Britain brought her chapter as a computing giant to an abrupt halt.

    Post WWII Grace Hopper was “ardently recruited” by EMCC (the inventors of the UNIVAC), due to her “reputation as a programmer, mathematician, and manager” (Beyer, 178). She went on to work in an environment that celebrated her achievements, and got to make use of the considerable knowledge that she had built up during the war. Hopper wrote a whole library of programs for the UNIVAC in just five months, and the knowledge she gleaned from working on the MKI and MKII directly contributed to both the efficiency and efficacy of her work. This was despite the large differences between programming the MK computers and the UNIVAC. Programs written for the MKI and II had to be translated to octal for input into the machines. In contrast, UNIVAC programs were input in a machine code that was simpler than that used for the MKI and II, but that Hopper was completely unfamiliar with (Beyer, 191-195). Despite this, after a short amount of time learning how to program the UNIVAC Hopper was ready to contribute to the advancement of U.S. computing, mainly due to her previous experience. Though the British preserved two Colossi after WWII, they removed the human element from the equation. WRNS weren’t allowed to help develop code for new computers like Grace Hopper did, instead, they were silenced until the seventies. Britain stood no chance of competing against the Americans without permitting the WRNS to contribute to computing. Simply having more advanced computers at the end of the war wasn’t enough—Britain needed people with the ability to program and design even better ones.

    It was not as if the WRNS were any less equipped to continue their jobs post-war than their female equivalents stateside. In fact, there were many more women in Britain doing similar work to Grace Hoppers: “The WRNS programmed the Colossus by using switches and plug boards, in order to electronically emulate the different wheel and pin settings of the encryption machines.” (Hicks, 14). Though Grace Hopper’s work environment was far from stress-free, her experience was still nowhere near as hectic as that of the WRNS operators. The women who programmed the Colossi had to overcome extreme noise, heat, and even flooding in the rooms where they worked, yet they still managed to persevere and work eight-hour shifts. Despite this horrendous work environment, programmers cracked Nazi code without pause, and ensured allied victory (Hicks, 14). Given that the WRNS produced such astounding results in the hectic war-time work environment, one can assume that they would be more than qualified to help build the next generation of computers post war in Britain.

    Not only did the WRNS learn experientially from programming the Colossi, they also partook in classes during their time at Bletchley Park. Due to the extreme pressures at the latter end of the war it no longer made sense to only train men in the skills required for code breaking. According to a general report, lectures in theory and math were “’a complete success’ for the Colossus operators” (Hicks, 17). As the war went on the male supervisors of the WRNS programmers gave guidance to the operators less and less, mainly so that they could spend more time focused on other tasks. This meant that the WRNS not only had to learn how to program the Colossi, they also had to be able to teach others the art of the machines (Hicks, 17). This theoretical knowledge meant that the WRNS would have been even better equipped to continue as programmers and operators after the war, but instead they were silenced for decades.

    Britain’s post war obsession with secrecy was driven by desire to cling to its status at the top of the world and was an attempt to stave off the ever-growing American superpower. Ironically, Britain’s secrecy complex was what brought the end to her time as a computing giant. Had Britain’s kept on the WRNS programmers and other employees of Bletchley park to do research, or at least opened up their wartime computing discoveries to the public like the U.S. had, it is likely that the world would have seen a different progression of computing history. Though the U.S. might eventually have overtaken Britain, it is entirely possible that there would be two silicon valleys in our current world—one in California, and on at Bletchley Park.

    Works Cited:
    Beyer, Kurt. Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age.
    Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2009.
    Hicks, Marie. Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing
    MIT Press, 2017.

  5. Injustice for women, Loss for Humanity.

    18.46% is the female representation of 2010’s graduating computer science class. For a person who was born in generation Y, the number doesn’t seem odd, after all we were under the impression that technology and especially computers were a man’s job. Our generation was under the impression that the field of computer science was pioneered by great men such as Alan Turing and Tim Berners Lee. In fact if one were to ‘google’ the phrase “pioneers of computer science”, the list that would come up is made of all men with the exception of Ada Lovelace. It is worth noting that for my generation, computers are the last thing that comes to one’s mind when talking about innovative women, in terms of current pop culture, women and computers in same context is ‘unsexy’ as it gets. So if one were to tell you that, there were machines as early as 1950s that could solve differential equations in 3 dimensions, which were almost exclusively operated by women, it would sound like a work of fiction. While I cannot exactly pin point the reasons for the complete ignorance towards the contribution of women towards the growth of computer science, I’d like to explore the importance of the work some women had in cultivating the science of computer and the detrimental effects it might have had on advancement of human race as a whole in terms of hiding these achievements of women in this paper.

    Harvard Mark 1, considered as one of the first computers in the world, was able to solve partial differential equations in different dimensions for problems such as fluid and heat flow as early as 1945. It is very important to understand the significance of doing such calculations in comparison with current technology we have to solve such problems. In simple terms these different degree calculations are almost impossible to solve by hand. A current engineering student have access to wide variety of software to solve such problems that utilize a graphical user interference (GUI ) for communication and yet some of us still have trouble making the computer understand what we require from it. Now imagine solving these problems in 1945 with a machine that utilizes mechanical relays for calculations and punch cards for input. The context makes one appreciate the importance of the machine but most importantly one could only marvel at the sheer ingenuity a person should have to make a behemoth machine like that work. In terms of that, what Grace Hopper achieved is nothing short of a wonder. Grace Hooper was from a background of mathematics, she had no insight into workings of complex machines that utilize mechanical relays. She was basically thrown into sea and was asked to learn how to swim yet with all those impossible odds stacked against her, she was able to make the most out of the situation. It is worth noting that Grace Hooper was actually one of the few women who actually got credit for their work but the importance of human element in the Mark I project is not highlighted enough. I think we are under the impression that the machine did all the work while people involved in the project just maintained it. When researching further, it becomes apparent that such notions are completely untrue, and one could actually argue that the human element was far important in early computers than the machine itself.

    Talking about the human element, one of the biggest injustices in the field of computer science was done to the ENIAC girls. ENIAC programmers were completely ignored in the annals of history while the machine itself was inaugurated as a wonder. When evaluating literature pertaining to ENIAC carefully it becomes apparent that, this computer would have been untenable if it weren’t for the original six programmers who happened to be women. This machine was showcased as a device that could solve problems in 20 seconds that would require 20 hours to solve by hand. This notion of the machine being a giant brain completely ignored the invaluable time ENIAC programmers spent on solving each problem. The importance of human element in the ENIAC project becomes more evident when we go through Jean Bartik’s autobiography, one of the original ENIAC programmers. She mentions that in order to demonstrate the ballistic calculation capabilities of the ENIAC to the public, Herman Goldstine, one of the original developers of ENIAC had to enlist the help of Betty Holberton and Jean Bartik because he wasn’t able to write the program himself. From all historical accounts it is apparent that Goldstine was an extremely proud man, who thought consulting women for help in matters of science is shameful. This makes it more evident the crucial role these women played in the ENIAC project.

    In retrospect,it is quite evident that there was a complete oversight when documenting histories of these women. If one were to be outraged by the social injustice of the whole aspect, it is worth noting that recently some of these women have actually gotten credit for their work, while it is not exactly a cause for celebration, at least there is the satisfaction of justice. Humans have a tendency to look up to people, to idolize and get inspired by these accomplished individuals. By completely concealing these women from the world who were integral in shaping the science of the computer, we have completely failed a generation of women. There is no credited medical research that proves intelligence is associated with a specific gender, and from a historical point of view, women who have worked with computers have actually demonstrated a superior dexterity when it comes to solving pertaining problems. I think considering all that, humanity has hindered its progress by shutting out women out of the field of computer science. If one were to observe the field of science holistically, it is discernible that most new advancements of physical sciences are associated with the availability of superior technology. As a student of a science it pains me to consider the possibilities where we could be as a race if we didn’t shut out an entire skilled demographic group for petty reasons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *