One of the nice things about online reviews is that, by tracking them back, you can discover new and interesting blogs. The latest in my list is The Enlightened Economist, where Diane Coyle reviews a prodigious range and number of books. Here is an excerpt from her review of The Computer Boys.
This interesting social history of computer programming, The Computer Boys Take Over by Nathan Ensmenger, is essentially a story of the struggle for power inside corporations. As I noted in my pre-view of the book, programming was initially thought of as a rather lowly support function, and it took some time for the designers of the massive early computers to realise that writing software was going to be a key function. When they did, out went the women programmers who were rather prominent in those early days (although some, such as Admiral Grace Hopper, remained influential), and in came the ‘boys’.
Reading The Enlightened Economist reminds me how many good books there are for me to read (and how few of these I am actually able to get around to — even as a professional academic). An impressive blog.
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.
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 computercomputer programmers, systems analysts, and network and database administratorshave 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
“The Computer Boys Take Over rewrites the history of computing by recounting the development of software in terms of labor, gender, and professionalization. Ensmenger meets the long-standing challenge to reform computer history by employing themes of vital interest to the general history of science and technology.”
Ronald Kline, Bovay Professor in History and Ethics of Engineering, Cornell University
“The Computer Boys Take Over shows how computer programmers struggled for professional legitimacy and organizational recognition from the early days of ENIAC through the $300 billion Y2K crisis. Ensmenger’s descriptions of ‘computer science’ and ‘software engineering,’ as well as his portraits of Maurice Wilkes, Alan Turing, John Backus, Edsger Dijkstra, Fred Brooks, and other pioneers, give a compelling introduction to the field.”
Thomas J. Misa, director of the Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota