• Date of Class: 2/28
  • First due: 3/6
  • Comments due: 3/13
  • Revisions due: 3/20

When we were assigning topics and discussion leaders back in January, I quickly claimed this one. That’s because I knew the history of computing largely overlapped with one of my favorite topics of discussion: women. We read about Father Busa (dubbed “Father of Digital Humanities,”) and his female punch card operatives, Christopher Strachey’s love letters in “A Queer History of Computing,” how females were left out of the history of the ENIAC’s history, and the theoretical “memex” machine.

In “A Queer History of Computing,” we noticed the large emphasis the article had on art. The introduction framed Strachey as someone involved in the arts, and referred to his love letter generator more as an artistic critique than a breakthrough in computer science. We found this strange, because it truly was a breakthrough in computer science. Produced years before Eliza, this kind of generative computing had never been seen before. While the love letter generator was indeed a major feat in art, we thought it definitely deserved more credit as science than it was given. Strachey’s generator was certainly a kind of critique on love letters and romance. Since being gay was illegal, Strachey wouldn’t have been able to actually exchange love letters with someone without fear of getting caught. The generator showed that one doesn’t need to have a heterosexual relationship to write or recieve love letters, or even express and experience love for that matter.The article claimed that the generator was not “real men’s work,” but I can’t help but wonder if the author would say that if Strachey wasn’t gay.

We then talked about Father Busa and his female punch card operatives. The project was deemed so important and sucessful that Father Busa was given the title of “Father of Digital Humanities.” However, the work behind the project, that is to say, the women, were never part of the story. The project was designed to produce “a concordance to c. 11 million words of Thomas Aquinas and related authors.” In the 30 years it took to complete this project, hundreds of women were trained to work on the project. Father Busa wanted women for the project because he thought they would be more careful, which was not an uncommon assumption (and it doesn’t hurt that women could (and still can) be paid less for the same ammount of work men could do). While the training and references these women recieved made them more hirable, it doesn’t make up for all the credit they were due. Without the countless hours these women dedicated to the project, it wouldn’t exist today.

This brough us to the “When Computers Were Women” piece (my personal favorite of the four). This piece really shed light on the role women had in the history of computing. Today we think of the word “computer” as basically an electronic square, either on a desk or on a lap. But just like how someone who swims is a “swimmer,” there was a time where someone who computed was a “computer”. Women were used to caluclate ballistics in WWII, and despite the deeply complex and advanced mathematics required to do the calculations, this was only seen as a “subprofession”. When working on the ENIAC, men were assigned the “important” work (the hardware), while women took care of the software (“programming was a woman’s job”). But to know how to make functional software, one has to be intimately familiar with the hardware. Despite needing to know arguably twice as much as their male hardware counterparts, the work these women did was still seen as lesser than, still “subprofessional”. Asside from having their name erased from the project (women were interchangable and usually referred to by who their husband was or by their position/employer (scanner girl, etc.)), we found that women were literally cut out of the project. In an army ad, a photograph of the ENIAC and three operators (two women and a man) was cut smaller to only feature the male operator. We drew a connection between the women of the ENIAC and the scanners behind Google Books. It’s easy to forget that behind the elusive and all-knowing entity that is Google, there were hundreds of minimum wage laborers scanning these books behind the scenes.

We concluded our conversation with “As We May Think,” which introduced us to the memex. The internet makes information almost too accessible, and it’s easy to feel like too much information is a problem that comes with the time. But, as this article showed us, information has always been mass-produced and mass-consumed. (NOTE: we talked about this article in our last 3-5 minutes and my notes on what we discussed are a little sparse. If you have notes or remember something from the discussion of this article that I am missing, please let me know in your comments and I will include it in the next version. Thank you!) missing