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Of Note: Ida Rhodes Dreamed of the Future

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Classified ads divided by gender.
Help wanted ads in the Washington Evening Star, June 5, 1955. Chronicling America, Library of Congress.

Ida Rhodes was livid, but she hadn’t lost her sense of humor. It was 1957, and the senior programmer at the National Bureau of Standards was unloading her “grievances” on the IBM 704, a hulking mainframe computer the company had introduced three years earlier. Rhodes had returned to Washington after a two-month visit to Southern California. She had apparently been invited by aircraft manufacturer Convair to critique its use of the 704’s assembly language, programs entered laboriously with punch cards and then stored on magnetic tape. “Mrs. Rhodes’ suggestions,” an IBM administrator cheerfully suggested, “are submitted to us with a spirit of eagerness to cooperate in advancing the art of computing.”[1]

Rhodes did want to advance the art of computing. She was a techno-optimist, one of the nation’s most skillful programmers, and a dynamo of energy, described by one journalist as “small, gray-haired and electric.”[2] Her written assault on the 704, now preserved as an attachment to a memo in the papers of computer scientist John W. Backus, blended technical mastery with florid denunciations. The machine’s adherence to Hollerith representation was “antediluvian.” Its q and p bits? “Absurd.” Its overreliance on punch cards? An “albatross” around the customer’s neck, one Rhodes strongly insinuated was a scheme to sell more punch cards at the expense of the user’s sanity.[3]

The 704’s monitoring facilities were the last straw. “Instead of wasting their time thinking up absurd, silly and unnecessary ‘gimmicks’ to startle the yokels,” Rhodes wrote, why not produce “a simple set of codes” and an automonitoring system similar to the National Bureau of Standards’ own mainframe, the SEAC? Then, she insisted, “we would have had a cheaper machine, an even faster machine, one that does not need a conclave of High Priests to prepare Assemblies for, one that I would not need to ‘curse’ some 50 times a day.” “It is not sophistication that we are in need of,” she concluded, “but more simplicity.”[4]

Ida Rhodes, attachment, G. W. Petrie to C. R. DeCarlo, et al., May 3, 1957. Box 1, Folder 8, John W. Backus Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Who was Ida Rhodes? According to IBM, “perhaps the outstanding programmer of all time, certainly the best known.”[5] She made an unlikely journey to get there. Born Hadassah Itzkowitz in 1900 in what is now Ukraine, she fled the region’s growing political unrest with her family at age 13. Six years later, she was studying at Cornell. Four years after that, she had attained bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics, managing to attend class in the mornings while putting in twelve-hour shifts as a nurse’s aide.[6] By 1940, she was a mathematician with the Mathematical Tables Project, an epic effort to publish error-free tables of exponential and circular functions for government and industry.[7] By 1947, she was thrown into the deep end of digital computing when virtually no one was prepared for it, first terrified “the whole world” would discover “what a perfect ignoramus I was” and then instead becoming one of the world’s foremost computing experts. She traveled the country critiquing computational techniques, contributing to the development of early computers like the SEAC and UNIVAC, designing the C-10 programming language for the Census Bureau, and pioneering the field of machine language translation.[8]

Rhodes had faith in computers and seemed to feel a bit betrayed when she saw them misused. She gave vivid public speeches in which she imagined homes of the future whose “screen-walls” displayed everything from art to video conferences, and “lovely sunny” home offices where workers could access “any sample of the world’s literature and art… for the edification and enjoyment of all the citizens.”[9] She envisioned computers one day eliminating all the “boring, stupid” work of life, and becoming our allies in “cleaning out the Augean Stables of human misery.”[10] She believed in them.

At a time when American newspapers routinely divided their help wanted ads by sex, computing was more of a blank slate. Women like Rhodes were involved in computing from its earliest days, and in fairly large numbers. Many held positions of influence. Their ability to navigate that world, and to resist the devaluing of their own labor and expertise, stemmed in part from computing’s novelty. But as historian Janet Abbate argues, women like Rhodes were also active in “inventing careers and professional identities” as the field took shape.[11] That freedom enabled Rhodes to brand herself “the best coder in the world,” and demand that she be taken seriously. And it left her room to joke around. “It is unbelievable that a dope like me should be telling geniuses where the weaknesses are,” she later recalled. “But I did know a great deal about computation. That I don’t think anybody can deny.”[12]

Woman seated at IBM 650 mainframe
IBM publicity photo for the 650, which became the most popular computer of the 1950s. Box II:118, Folder 11, Charles Eames and Ray Eames Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

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[1] G. W. Petrie to C. R. DeCarlo, et al., May 3, 1957, Box 1, Folder 8, John W. Backus Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[2] “Doing a Job That’s ‘Non-Do-Able,’” Baltimore Sun, July 5, 1959.

[3] Herman Hollerith was an early computer designer and U.S. Census employee whose firm, Tabulating Machine Company, later merged with several other companies to form IBM. His papers are held by the Manuscript Division.

[4] Ida Rhodes, attachment, G. W. Petrie to C. R. DeCarlo, et al., May 3, 1957, Box 1, Folder 8, John W. Backus Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[5] G. W. Petrie to C. R. DeCarlo, et al., May 3, 1957, Box 1, Folder 8, John W. Backus Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[6] Eric A. Weiss, “Ida Rhodes,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 14, no. 2 (1992), 58; Denise Gürer, “Ida Rhodes,” in Notable Women in Mathematics: A Biographical Dictionary (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998), 181.

[7] D. W. Gürer, “Women’s Contributions to Early Computing at the National Bureau of Standards,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 18, no. 3 (Fall 1996): 29, 31.

[8] Ida Rhodes, interview by Henry Tropp, March 21, 1973, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, 23; Gürer, “Women’s Contributions,” 31.

[9] Ida I. Rhodes, “The Human Computer’s Dreams of the Future,” in Proceedings of the Electronic Computer Symposium Held April 30, May 1-2, 1952 (University of California Los Angeles, 1952), 4-5.

[10] “Machines Do ‘Boring’ Work, So… Man Being Forced to Think,” Washington Post, September 23, 1959; Ida Rhodes, “The Mighty Man-Computer Team,” in Blanch Anniversary Volume: A Series of Papers Presented on the Occasion of Her Retirement by Friends of Gertrude Blanch (Aerospace Research Laboratories, United States Air Force, 1967), 282.

[11] Janet Abbate, Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2012), 1, 4, 60.

[12] Ida Rhodes, interview by Henry Tropp, 32, 39.

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