Category Archives: Excerpt

Working the Desk Set


In my Information Society course this morning we talked about the Desk Set, the 1957 romantic comedy starring Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and the fictional computer EMERAC.  As I write about in The Cosa-Nostra of the Data Processing chapter, ”

What is less widely remembered about Desk Set is that it was spon- sored in part by the IBM Corporation. The film opens with a wide-angle view of an IBM showroom, which then closes to a tight shot of a single machine bearing the IBM logo. The equipment on the set was provided by IBM, and the credits at the end of the film—in which an acknowledgment of IBM’s involvement and assistance features prominently—appear as if printed on an IBM machine. IBM also supplied equipment operators and training.

Read the entire discussion of the Desk Set and its relationship to the history of computing here.

The politics of programming languages

In Chapter 2 (“Tower of Babel”) I discuss the ways in which different programming languages (FORTRAN, COBOL, and ALGOL, among others) embodied different social, organizational, and professional agendas.  Some of this was a reflection of  particular problem domains — FORTRAN was obviously designed for scientific applications, and COBOL for business use.  But more significantly, many languages were intended to discipline what was seen as a unreliable and recalcitrant labor force.  As Fred Gruenberger of the RAND Corporation noted in a 1962 Symposium on Programming Languages, “You know, I’ve never seen a hot dog language come out yet in the last 14 years — beginning with Mrs. Hopper’s A-0 compiler … that didn’t have tied to it the claim in its brochure that this one will eliminate all programmers. The last one we got was just three days ago from General Electric (making the same claim for the G-WIZ compiler) that this one will eliminate programmers. Managers can now do their own programming; engineers can do their own programming, etc. As always, the claim seems to be made that programmers are not needed anymore.”

The notion that programming languages are “artifacts with politics” is a provocative one, and I explore the idea more in my chapter on the Cambrian explosion of programming languages. What follows is an excerpt discussing the gendered nature of many of the advertisements for programming languages that appeared in this period:

In its “Meet Susie Meyers” advertisements for its PL/1 programming language, the IBM Corporation asked its users an obviously rhetorical question: “Can a young girl with no previous programming experience find happiness handling both commercial and scientific applications, without resorting to an assembler language?” The answer, of course, was an enthusiastic “yes!” Although the advertisement promised a “brighter future for your programmers,'”(who would be free to “concentrate more on the job, less on the language”) it also implied a low-cost solution to the labor crisis in software. The subtext of appeals like this was non-too-subtle: If pretty little Susie Meyers, with her spunky miniskirt and utter lack of programming experience, could develop software effectively in PL/1, so could just about anyone.

The actual advertisement was a two-page, full-color extravaganza.

Excerpt: Where did all the women go?

The story of the “computer boys” begins, intriguingly enough, with a group of women. Throughout the book the role of female computer programmers is described, as is the process by which computer programming was gradually made masculine. The question of gender in the computing fields, and in academic computer science in particular is still a pressing problem for educators, industry, policy-makers, and society in general.

The following is from Chapter 8: Visible Technicians:

In 1969 the Data Processing Management Association presented Rear Admiral Grace Hopper with its very first “man of the year” award. That a professional society in a technical field would, in this period, even consider awarding its very first major award to a woman seems astounding to modern sensibilities. In the decades since the “ENIAC girls” became the world’s first computer programmers, the computer professions have become stereotypically masculine, and female enrollments in computer science programs have been declining since the mid-1980s. Participation rates for women in the computing fields are a perennial problem for the industry, and this has been the subject of much study and debate for the past several decades.

It was not always thus. As we have seen, women played an early and important role in the history of computing. Some of them became quite influential: in addition to Grace Hopper, Betty Snyder Holberton, Jean Sammet, and Beatrice Helen Worsley, among others, rose to positions of considerable prominence in the early computing industry … However, during this same period the computer programming community was also actively pursuing a strategy of professional development that would eventually make it one of the most stereotypically male professions, inhospitable to most women.

For more information on women in computing, see Gender Codes: Why Women Are Leaving Computing.

Computer Revolutionaries

From the introduction:

“Chances are that you or someone close to you makes their living “working with computers.” In the decades since the 1950s, the technical specialists most directly associated with the electronic digital computer—computer programmers, systems analysts, and network and database administrators—have assumed an increasingly active and visible role in the shaping of our modern information society.”

Read more from the introduction to The Computer Boys Take Over