Friday, February 21, 2014

Things you don't think about.

There's a fair number of people (I think/hope) that realize that the word computer was actually a job title for a person - a person that sits in an office somewhere and does the menial adding/subtracting/multiplying of numbers. In the early-mid 20th century the computer became a thing, a machine.
Though it would have been earlier if Babbage had bloody well got off his perfectionist arse and just built his damn computing engine instead of perpetually refining the designs.

Even before the first mechanical computers were built though, we had our first programmer - a woman by the name of Ada Lovelace, who we can very safely, I think, put into the category of extremely clever person. The human computers were around for a bit longer though. As best as I can gather, it was a mostly a position for males at the beginning of their careers. That changed round the late 19th/early 20th century when it became a job available to women with mathematics degrees.

Then in the 20th century, we get the invention of electrical computers. At which point, everyone should be introduced to Kay McNulty, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Ruth Lichterman, Betty Jean Jennings, and Fran Bilas, the programmers of ENIAC, which was pretty much the first electronic, general computer ever built. Yup, both the person who invented programming and the first programmers of electrical computers where all women. And for quite some time after that, right up to the 1960's and 1970's, computing was thought to be a suitable profession for young women (if they weren't going to be teachers or nurses).

So computing has over the years gone from being a male profession, to one that a female one and back again. Which, if it wasn't patently obvious before (which it was if you're the sort of person who pays attention), demonstrates that it's a cultural thing rather than anything to do with ability that has the industry largely dominated by men these days. 
I don't know how many people actually stop and think about the history of the profession though. It's a nice way, in computing at least, to challenge assumptions that people probably don't even realize that they're making.