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Teaching about Women’s Involvement in the History of Computer Science

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This post is by Sam Correia, a 2021 Library of Congress Junior Fellow.

The Computing Division of a government agency, 1909

Before computers became objects that many of us use in our day-to-day lives, ‘computer’ was a job title. From the 1800s to the mid-1900s, a ‘computer’ was someone who worked on calculations by hand. These ‘computers’ worked everywhere from astronomical observatories to the Treasury Department to the United States Census. It was widely believed at the time that the work, considered repetitious and tedious, were some of the only suitable tasks for women. In reality, the entire history of modern day computers and computer programming can be traced through the contributions that women have made to the field.

Ada Lovelace worked with mathematician Charles Babbage to write programs for his calculating machines in the mid-1800s. Lovelace and Babbage are often credited with creating the first computer, though it was not called a computer at that time. Human computers, such as the Harvard Computers, worked in groups at observatories to process astronomical data. Other computers worked in offices and government departments.

Newspaper article on the use of the Univac computer

During WWII, more than 8,000 women worked at Bletchley Park, the British center for codebreaking. At the same time, mathematician Grace Hopper wrote computer code for the war effort in the US. Computers from the 1950s such as ENIAC, UNIVAC, and Mark I were all programmed by women, in some capacity or another. The Space Race of the 1960s brought along the need for more of these ‘human computers’ to work as mathematicians at NASA.

Ask students the following questions:

  • What can you notice and observe from the computing office image and the images in the newspaper article?
  • What connections can you make between images?
  • What further questions do you have?

Continue your discussion by showing the students this image from an IRS Computer Center. Ask them to compare and contrast all of the images that they are presented with. Do you feel that the roles of women in computer science are accurately presented in these images? What leads to the erasure of voices from the narrative of science history? Who is missing from these images?

Students might consider some other examples of tasks that used to be done by hand and are now done by a machine, such as sewing. This can be used to frame a discussion of industrialization and modern technical advancements.

Learn more:

Primary Sources in Science Classrooms: Computer Science and Programming with Punched Cards

Hidden Figures No More: African American Women in Space Exploration

Please take a moment to comment below: What might be some better ways to highlight the achievements of women in computer science?

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