National Geographic has produced an excellent series on the history of sex and sexuality. As part of that series, they ran an episode on sex and technology. If you watch closely, you can see me talking about the history of computer dating as first described on this post on this blog!
At long last my article “Beards, Sandals, and Other Signs of Rugged Individualism”: Masculine Culture within the Computing Professions has been published in Osiris, the annual journal of the History of Science Society. This piece has been a long time coming: the original workshop it was commissioned for was held in 2012, and the extensive process of peer review that makes Osiris issues so special stretched out over the past two years.
The focus of the special issue is on “scientific masculinities,” and my article explores the flip-side of the work I have been doing on the history of women in computing. That is to say, my emphasis is on how male programmers constructed both a professional and a masculine identity for themselves.
From the abstract of the article:
Over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, male computer experts were able to successfully transform the “routine and mechanical” (and therefore feminized) activity of computer programming into a highly valued, well-paying, and professionally respectable discipline. They did so by constructing for themselves a distinctively masculine identity in which individual artistic genius, personal eccentricity, antiauthoritarian behavior, and a characteristic “dislike of activities involving human interaction” were mobilized as sources of personal and professional authority. This article explores the history of masculine culture and practices in computer programming, with a particular focus on the role of university computer centers as key sites of cultural formation and dissemination.
The title of the article comes from a contemporary essay by Richard Brandon called “The Problem in Perspective” (the problem here being the pervasive “question of professionalism” in the computer industry, which is the subject of my first published academic article). The “programmer type,” according to Brandon, was “excessively independent,” often to the point of mild paranoia. He was “often egocentric, slightly neurotic, and he borders upon a limited schizophrenia. The incidence of beards, sandals, and other symptoms of rugged individualism or nonconformity are notably greater among this demographic group.” Tales about programmers and their peculiarities “are legion,” Brandon argued, and “do not bear repeating here.”1
Having just given a talk at the SXSW interactive festival, I can attest (anecdotally, at least) that beards are alive and well in programming culture. And according to this research by the folks at Trestle Technology, which combines Github data with Microsoft facial recognition software, Swift developers are “beardy hipsters.”
Shortly after the publication of the new article, a friend discovered an extended quote from Brandon that also claimed the “two of the hippie leaders at Haight-Ashbury were computer programmers.” It took me some time to track this claim down, but I finally found it in a chapter on “The Economics of Computer Programming” that Brandon published in a 1970 book On the Management of Computer Programmers.[2. George Weinwurm, editor. On the Management of Computer Programmers (New York, Auerbach Publishers, 1970).
The association between computer culture and the counter culture has been much discussed (most sensibly and thoroughly by Fred Turner in his masterful From Counter-Culture to Cyberculture). This quote by Brandon is an early and atypical reference to hippies and hackers, and my thanks to Dag Spicer at the Computer History Museum for bringing it to my attention.
- Richard Brandon, “The problem in perspective,” in Proceedings of the 1968 23rd ACM National Conference (New York, 1968): 332–334. ↩
One of my favorite primary sources for the Computer Boys book was the Programmer’s Coloring Book. In fact, I recently used a cartoon from that series for a forthcoming article in Information & Culture that I wrote about the history of the software flowchart.
It is only recently, however, that I learned about the larger popularity of adult coloring books (no, not that kind of “adult”…). in the 1960s. Laura Marsh at the New Republic has a brilliant new article on The Radical History of 1960s Adult Coloring Books (in which she references this site). I wish that I had been aware of this a few years ago!
It is always a little frustrating as an historian to find the perfect primary source document after you have already published your manuscript. In my case, I only recently came across Your Career in Computer Programming, a 1967 book by an IBM public relations officer named I.J. Seligsohn. The book would have been invaluable to me in writing The Computer Boys Take Over. At it is, finding it has at least been validating: much of what is new (to me, at least) in Seligsohn confirms the conclusions I came to from other sources. In any case, this book is an absolute gem: written by an NYT English major and science-fiction author, it is full of engaging and insightful anecdotes, particularly about the role of women in early computing.
For example, he quotes a Hungarian-American programmer named Agnes Bodony who started as a keypunch operator, advanced to systems programmer, and eventually ended up starting her own freelance programming business:
It isn’t easy to get started in free-lance programming; don’t get me wrong. But I know of no other job that can be so easily satisfying to a girl with a logical mind, that can pay her so well, and still keep her close to her family.
The Bodony story is not an isolated incident. The book is full of stories from women, and in fact includes an entire chapter devoted to women in computing (“The Equal Sex”). Seligsohn goes so far as to suggest that female programmers are not only equal in ability to men, but superior:
Given a complex customer problem, a female analyst/programmer will often handle the problem better than would her male colleagues with equivalent experience and ability. Not because businessmen are more lenient or show favoritism toward the female of the species, but because the female is often more sensitive to the nuances of a problem and to the complex interpersonal relations that may be part of the problem. In a very real sense, every computer problem with a customer is also a customer relations problem, and this is where feminine tact, insight, and intuition, combining with solid programming and analytical ability, can really pay off for the girl programmer.
The entire book is brilliant, and I expect to draw on it heavily in future presentations of the gendered history of computer programming. With the exception of Janet Abbate’s recent Recoding Gender, I cannot think of a single source that contains more stories from actual women programmers from this period.
One particularly extraordinary story that Seligsohn tells is that of Bobbi Johnson (now Bobbi Johnson Kaufmann). Johnson was the valedictorian of her class in high school, a recipient of an NSF scholarship, the secretary of her freshman class at the University of Kansas, where she was a Dean’s List student. In 1964 Johnson won the Miss USA contest:
The night I won the Miss USA contest, the reporters asked what career ambitions I had. I guess they thought I’d say something like modeling or becoming an actress, but I said the first thing that popped into my head: that I wanted to be a computer programmer… The very next day I was flooded with telegrams from companies offering me jobs in programming.
Despite receiving other offers to model and act in movies, Johnson stuck with her ambition to become a programmer and was hired at GE to program GE 400-series and Datanet 30 computer systems.
The public radio show Backstory did an episode on women in the workforce that featured a segment called “Binary Coeds: the secret history of women in programming.” I was one of the guests. Listen here. The producer of the segment, Andrew Parsons, manages to synthesize a complicated history into a short but coherent ten minutes. I was a pleasure to participate.