Programming was women’s work. The WSJ has been running a series on the history of women in technology, and their being “pushed out” in the years following WW2 (more here). During and after the war women were the workers who ran the early computers of the day and also programmed them. Programming was then considered a kind of clerical work best suited for the fair sex. This all brings back some interesting memories from my early engineering career.
In the mid-60s I was a young engineer, fresh out of the Army, working in aerospace, going to grad school, and raising a family with small children. My employer was Singer-Librascope, a big defense contractor based in Glendale that was a major supplier of the Navy’s shipboard combat systems (specializing in nuclear submarines). I worked in their bleeding edge R&D department where we were inventing new things every week, prototyping them for shipboard testing, and then analyzing the data from the test ranges and secret missions before incorporating some of the findings into the newest systems. Pretty heady stuff that set the direction for the rest of my career.
During that time engineers were supposed to derive new algorithms from applicable science that would be incorporated into the Navy’s weapons and the systems that fired them. We had equations and models coming out of our ears. The company’s mainframe was the mammoth CDC3300, that computer took up the floor space of a small cafeteria and handled everything from accounting, inventory, and engineering. Programs were coded (and stored) on punched cards and magnetic tape, and the output came back to you on reams of tractor feed paper. Each punched card represented one line of Fortran code. The company also maintained state-of-the-art keypunch and programming departments, these were ‘best practices’ at the time.
Engineers were required to coordinate with programming to get one or two programmers assigned to your project. Programmers were all men, with a few women left over from the old days, to whom you explained the equations and the algorithmics you had in mind, and they would write the code. Then you would go through laborious debugging, and finally specify the data runs that you had to make. You could plan on two runs a day, and perhaps a third overnight if you talked nice to the computer people.
The programmers actually wrote down the lines of Fortran on 80-column sheets, precisely denoting where every character would go. Then these sheets would be handed to the key-punch department that was staffed by all ladies (everyone knew that typing was women’s work) who would return a stack or boxes full of Hollerith formatted punch cards.
This was a long and laborious process, and in our department we young Turks soon took matters into our own hands. All of us quickly learned Fortran, had a keypunch set up in our office area, and ‘fired’ the programming and keypunch departments. Over time other engineering departments did the same, relegating the programmers to do Cobol programming for accounting, payroll, and inventory tracking. The good programmers quickly left – going down the street to Disney where they started its Animatronics division – and from then on, all engineers did their own coding which became even easier when remote computing arrived (around 1970) that allowed us to write and upload both Fortran and Basic programs and get our output on teleprinters. We now could make an unlimited number of runs per day – debugging became a breeze.
A significant number of women started coming back to technology in the early 70s. We then wound up with three degreed female engineers, but learning to work with them in a free-wheeling take-no-prisoners technical environment presented new challenges. Technically they were our peers, but the ladies still had to be handled with kid gloves during project review meetings, and no-holds-barred technical critiques.
All this happened when men and women were still different, and before we all were mandated equal in the workplace. That is until today, when we are again not equal in the workplace, and working with them, men again have to walk on eggshells lest … .
We had a more recent technology related experience this summer when Jo Ann and I took our grown daughters to Estonia to experience the country, visit the ancestral farm, villages where my parents grew up, and my grandparents’ graves. I have described my native Estonia as a small country on the Baltic that is acknowledged as perhaps the most advanced in its development of internet technologies and the adoption of these into its governance and the lives of its citizens. (more in My Story)
To update these developments, I want to share a current article in The New Yorker that was sent to me by a reader and correspondent. Entitled ‘Estonia, The Digital Republic’, the piece describes the most recent leap forward in implementing e-Estonia through a bevy of new online services and functions available to everyone from consumers and entrepreneurs to government administrators. In Estonia broadband is ubiquitous, and everyone conducts their daily affairs on their smartphones, pads, and laptops. As the leader in providing automation and utilizing the internet, that little country serves as a beacon as it demonstrates the art of the possible to more cumbersome larger countries like the US, and most certainly to technological backwaters such as own progressively punished Nevada County.