1961 Charles Addams cartoon inspires belated Valentine to women pioneers of computing

13 Feb 2016

This 1961 cover image from The New Yorker by Charles Addams recalls a world where computing was women's work. In fact women were the computers

To some they were ‘operators’, to others they were the ‘computer girls’, but the real pioneers of computing and coding were women. Inspired by a 1961 Valentine’s cover in the New Yorker by Charles Addams and recent events, let’s hear it for the girls.

The Addams cover is at first quaint, revealing how the world in the 1960s perceived computing in terms of giant machines. Addams is the creator of The Addams Family and is famous for his darkly humorous cartoons.

But look a little closer and you see a solitary female; an acknowledgement if you will that the world knew even then that the programmers of the time were women. In fact, there was a prevailing view back then that computing was women’s work, as a 1967 Cosmopolitan magazine article shows. This is all a far cry from the white, middle-class male stereotype that defines Silicon Valley today.

The 1961 New Yorker cover image was part of an Addams tradition on Valentine’s of showing the sentiment of love appearing in the coldest and loneliest of places, such as lighthouses on storm-battered coasts, and in this case a lady surrounded by giant machines in the bowels of a building somewhere back in time.

It is also a little futuristic because it shows a Valentine card being printed out in colour decades before the world even had dot matrix printers and long before we could send each other instant emojis.


Never forget

Last year, at Inspirefest 2015, I sat spellbound as Kathy Kleiman, co-producer of The Computers and founder of the ENIAC Programmers Project, recounted how the role of women in the history of technology has been shamefully overlooked – from Ada Lovelace to major breakthroughs during the World Wars.

Kleiman’s talk, during a segment in which Kerry Howard of Bletchley Park Research outlined the feats of Margaret Rock, Mavis Lever and Joan Clarke – cracking the German Enigma code – to the Jewels of Allah author Dr Ninah Ansary revealing the technological and scientific accomplishments made by Iranian women in spite of a repressive regime, revealed how an important group of women had almost been overlooked by history.

It is quite interesting how old media’s perception of women and computing, such as Addams’ iconic cartoon, is actually sparking a revision, and this was certainly the case for Kleiman.

It was while Kleiman was an undergraduate studying computer science that she came across a picture of the first programmable computer, ENIAC. She noticed that while the men in the picture were captioned, the women were not. After making inquiries, she was told, dismissively, that the women were models.

Suspicious and not to be deterred, Kleiman dug and dug. These women were Jean Jennings Bartik, Betty Snyder Holberton, Frances Bilas Spence, Marlyn Wesscoff Meltzer, Ruth Teitelbaum and Kathleen Mauchly Antonelli.

In effect, these women were not only critical to the creation of the first programmable computer, they were the computers.


A scan from the April 1967 issue of Cosmopolitan

A vitally expansive article on the ENIAC women, and well worth a read, was only published this week in the Philly Voice by writer Meeri Kim, about six of these women who were recruited “as computers” from the University of Pennsylvania after World War II.

ENIAC’s mission was to perform calculations to design and build the hydrogen bomb. It was also used to calculate artillery firing tables and each line of tables took 40 hours to complete. By the time ENIAC was complete it could compute the trajectory of an artillery shell faster than the shell could travel.

“At the time we were like fighter pilots,” Kathleen Mauchly Antonelli recalled in The Computers.

Digital diversity

It is important to remember that during the wars and after the wars women played as pivotal a role as heroes like Alan Turing, who was also shamefully persecuted because of his sexuality and sadly took his own life.

At Bletchley Park, Turing’s cracking of the German’s Enigma Code was only possible because of the intelligent, capable female colleagues he worked. Last year, Kerry Howard pointed out at Inspirefest 2015 that 70pc of the 10,000 people at Bletchley Park were women.

In the movie The Imitation Game, one of the core members of Turing’s team was Joan Clarke, a cryptoanalyst and numismatist who went on to work at GCHQ after World War II and was awarded an MBE. She was portrayed by Keira Knightley in the film.

It was after reading Robert Harris’ Fatherland that Howard read another book by Harris called Enigma (on which The Imitation Game is based) and became “absolutely fascinated” with the story of codebreaking at Bletchley Park. This inspired her to pen a book, Women Codebreakers at Bletchley Park, telling the story of Margaret Rock, Mavis Lever and Joan Clarke.

This calls to mind recent developments concerning Bletchley Park. In recent weeks, one of the women who worked alongside the Bletchley Park code-breakers, Mary Harding, passed away at the age of 93.

The work done at Bletchley Park has been credited with shortening World War II by two years.

But, right after the war, most of these women were expected to forget their uniforms and achievements and lead domestic lives as wives and mothers and, for decades, generals and politicians shamefully brushed them out of history.

Another of these women was 98 year-old Irishwoman Eileen Leslie Greer, who recently received a long overdue medal and a certificate signed by British prime minister David Cameron. Greer studied German at Trinity College Dublin and was a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast when the war broke out.

She offered her services to the British government, which, recognising the usefulness of her fluent German, appointed her to a linguistics team at Bletchley Park. In collaboration with cryptanalysts, the linguistics team was responsible for analysing communications picked up from the Germans, and producing intelligence reports that would guide what the codebreakers looked for in future communications.

It is 2016 and we live in a no less troubled world, but we owe what freedoms we have to women like these from Bletchley to ENIAC and beyond.

It is 2016 and science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) are the gateway to fulfilling futures, but the success of Silicon Valley and technology is still being perceived as a male-only club of brogrammers. In effect, women and young girls, in particular, are being misled by society into believing that STEM careers are for boys only.

We need to encourage more women to be coders, scientists, founders and venture capitalists. Less than 5pc of venture capital in the US goes to female tech founders and, worse again, it emerged this week that only 0.2pc of funding between 2012 and 2014 went to black women founders. So the STEM issue is not only about sex, it is about minorities.

I’d like to quote Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code, who said at Inspirefest last year: “By limiting women in technology we are limiting ourselves to only half of the world’s solutions.”

So, from an iconic New Yorker magazine cover from the 1960s to long overdue medals and recognition, let’s hear it for the real computer girls.

Videos you may enjoy from last year’s Inspirefest about the past, present and future of women in technology

Lessons from History, by Kathy Kleiman:

Debugging the Gender Gap, by Kimberly Bryant:

There’s more to Iranian women than you may think, by Dr Nina Ansary:

Lessons from History, by Kerry Howard:

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Join us again from 30 June to 2 July 2016 for fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity.

Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Intel, Open Eir (formerly Eircom Wholesale), Fidelity Investments, Accenture and CoderDojo.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years