In a recent talk that I gave at Stanford University, I discussed the changing role of women in the computing industry. The focus of the talk was a 1967 article in Cosmopolitan Magazine called “The Computer Girls”. An unusual source for a historian of computing, but one of my favorite and most useful. My particular favorite: a quote from the celebrated computer pioneer Admiral Grace Hopper comparing computer programming to following a recipe: “You have to plan ahead and schedule everything so it’s ready when you need it. Programming requires patience and the ability to handle detail. Women are ‘naturals’ at computer programming.”
One of the most significant developments in the computer industry during the 1960s was the perceived shortage of skilled “computer people”:
In 1945 there were no computer programmers, professional or otherwise; by 1967 industry observers were warning that although there were at least a hundred thousand programmers working in the United States, there was an immediate need for at least fifty thousand more. “Competition for programmers,” declared a contemporary article in Fortune magazine, “has driven salaries up so fast that programming has become probably the country’s highest paid technological occupation . . . Even so, some companies can’t find experienced programmers at any price.”.
The image is from an article in Popular Science from two years earlier. The programmer personnel crisis is the first of the many “software crises” that were proclaimed over the next several decades. The first published use of the phrase “software crisis” appears in a 1966 Business Week article on the “shortage of programmers.”
One of the big goals of The Computer Boys book was to help shift the focus of center of gravity of the history of computing from hardware to software, from machines to people — and not just the usual people, the “great man” inventors that dominate most popular histories of computing, but the thousands of largely anonymous men and women who worked to construct the computerized systems that form the basic infrastructure of our modern, information-centric society.
It has been a source of great embarrassment to me, therefore, to have people ask me about the man pictured on the cover of my book and not to have any real information about who he was or what he did. I did not even know exactly which computer he was standing in front of. [For those of you not familiar with the publishing business, my ignorance is somewhat excusable: in most cases, authors have no input into the book design process, and I never communicated directly with the graphic designers who did the (excellent) cover design.]
Thanks to Richard Gillespie, the head of the History & Technology department at the Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, I now know exactly who this person was. His name was Trevor Pearcey, and the machine he is standing in front of is the CSIR Mark 1, the fourth stored program computer ever constructed. Pearcey was trained as a physicist and mathematician who in 1945 left England for Australia to work at the Radiophysics Division of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). The CSIR Mark 1, which he helped design, ran its first program in 1949 and was operational by 1951. The Museum Victoria has an excellent exhibit on this early and important computer.
Trevor Pearcey went on to become one of the great figures in Australian computing. The Pearcey Foundation and the Pearcey National Award were established in honor of his accomplishments. He was born in 1919, and died in 1998.
The history of women in computing is a story that is only just beginning to be told. There are certain women, like Grace Hopper, who are (deservingly) well-covered in the history, but many of the women who made important contributions are still unknown.
A recent documentary, Top Secret Rosies, by LeAnn Erickson, is currently touring the country. The film tells the story of the female computers who worked on computational projects during the second world war. As of the historical consultants and “talking heads” on the film, I can recommend it highly. There seems to be a burst of coverage on the film everywhere from CNN to Slashdot.
Top Secret Rosies Trailer from LeAnn Erickson on Vimeo.
Looking at the job advertisements for computer programmers in the early 1960s, it is clear that many programmers were concerned about the future of their profession. On the one hand, there were many opportunities for horizontal mobility within the profession: an even moderately skilled programmer could readily move from company to company, and had little to fear in terms of long-term unemployment. On the other hand, it was not clear the programmers had much vertical mobility: for a variety of reasons, programmers were often not seen as being managerial potential. Many of the advertisements from this period appeal to this sense of frustration and insecurity. The overall message seemed to be “come work for our company; we will treat you as being more than a mere technician.”