I had the great fortune to interview Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley for the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. A child refugee from Nazi Germany, she went on to found a feminist software startup at a time when few people even knew what software was, and even fewer cared about feminist business models that put women’s needs first. She and her mostly-women employees wrote some of the most important software for 20th century British industry and government–including programming the black box flight recorder for the Concorde. She eventually became a billionaire and now focuses on philanthropy–particularly autism related causes. She was also the founding donor of the Oxford Internet Institute. Listen & watch here or read the transcript here. The interview was conducted over video link between her home in London and my home in the US. It runs about an hour.
For a much longer and more exhaustive oral history (many hours) check out Dr. Tom Lean’s interview with her for the British Library Oral History “voices of science” collection.
At the Society for the History of Technology Meeting this coming weekend in Philadelphia, MIT Press will being doing a joint launch of my book and Edward Jones-Imhotep’s terrific new volume on a unique set of Cold War technological failures. It runs from 3:30-4:30 on Friday, October 27, at the MIT Press table in the SHOT book hall. Discounts, free bookmarks, and snacks will be available! Come on by.
The short guide below evolved out of a conversation with Miriam Posner (@miriamkp) of UCLA who was looking for ways to help her students read more quickly and effectively. These tips can help you retain more when reading academic texts and allow you to get through them at a quicker pace.
Here’s what I tell my students if they have trouble keeping up with the reading for my history and STS classes: Continue reading →
This year, at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, I am teaching a new and improved version of my popular course Women in Computing History. It was initally taught at Illinois Tech in Chicago last year, where it garnered some press attention.
Due to the interest the course generated with people beyond the walls of our classroom I annotated the syllabus with discussion topics and class notes to give a sense of what we did in each class meeting–and what kinds of questions might be useful if you do the readings on your own.
See my syllabus page for the newest version of the course–the old version is still available as well, for all you completionists who might want to look at the details of how the course has changed!
I recently wrote a piece for the Washington Post using history to debunk the infamous “Google Memo” and its contention that women are somehow less innately suited to technical pursuits. Truth is, for a long time women were predominant in the field of computing because technical work wasn’t seen as important. Their disappearance has everything to do with structural discrimination and little to do with “innate” differences.
I was also very glad to get a few mentions in The Guardian. See this (delightfully acerbic) article about memogate in general, and this one that’s specifically about the history of computing’s role in helping us better understand power and (the lack of) diversity in our technological landscape in the present.
Quick note about the latter article–it made a little bit of a mistake in the first few lines (read more here and here). Both SUSIE and SADIE were computers. The typist/programmer in the ad was unnamed.
Five years ago, Silicon Valley was rocked by a wave of “brogrammer” bad behavior, when overfunded, highly entitled, mostly white and male startup founders did things that were juvenile, out of line and just plain stupid. Most of these activities – such as putting pornography into PowerPoint slides – revolved around the explicit or implied devaluation and harassment of women and the assumption that heterosexual men’s privilege could or should define the workplace. The recent “memo” scandal out of Google shows how far we have yet to go.
Recently I gave a talk at Data & Society, a think tank in NYC that focuses on issues of social justice and technology. The talk was about how the history of computing of our closest historical cousin, the UK, can help us learn things about the past and present of the US–things that we may be blind to, or perhaps just resistant to seeing. The half-hour talk is an overview of what happens when countries build discrimination into technological order, rather than seeking to make equality a core goal of technological progress. In it, I address how the current state of affairs in the US relates to this, and I offer some advice on solving the problems of underrepresentation in STEM fields today. Watch the talk here.
Recently I was on National Radio Sydney in Australia talking about women in computing. I didn’t actually get to go to Australia–the show was taped via phone–but I did get a taste of some fascinating Australian history of computing. The show’s producer shared records about the women computer programmers who worked at Woomera missile testing range in the 1950s and 1960s with me. Woomera was a joint initiative set up by the UK and Australian governments to give Britain a place to test its long-range weapons. Women there did a lot of similar computer work as women in the UK and the US who worked on ballistics research by computer. A 1964 article from the Canberra Times, for instance, tells the story of “Mrs. Emily Hurt, an expert from the Honeywell Electronic Data Processing Company,” yet does so under the (somewhat incorrect) headline “Unusual Career for a Woman.” The article also leads with “She met the man she was to marry over the computers…” before talking about her technical skills and actual work. Hear more in my full interview here.