When Computers were Women

Before the laptop, humans themselves were known as computers. The New York Times first used the term to describe a person in 1853 in an obituary: “Mr. Walker was widely known as an accomplished Astronomer and a skillful Computer.” Through the first half of the Twentieth Century, human computers carried out long calculations by hand, often as part of a team.

Did you know that first computer programmer was a 19th century female aristocrat named Ada Lovelace? Or that computing computer was considered women’s work for most of the 20th century? Did you know that women were encouraged to become computers as a career? Or that a team of African American women helped the United States compute its way to the moon?

Computing for Country

Female human computers were a key part of the war effort during World War II. Given male deployment into the armed forces, women mathematics graduates were given the chance at the job. These women helped produce much of the data that was instrumental in military research for World War II through the Cold War space race days.

Women were so synonymous with computing that “by the time World War II broke out, many scientists and industrialists in the U.S. were measuring computing power not in megahertz or teraflops, but in “kilo-girls.” 

In fact, it was as early as 1935 when Virginia Tucker, a former high school teacher with a talent for math, joined the first “Computer Pool”–a team of five women–at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia. This would later become NASA. Ten years later Tucker was Head of Computing and had trained 400 women from all across the country.

Segregated Computers

Female African American programmers were being hired in the 1940s following orders directly from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Segregation policies were law in the South and in military facilities, these women were forced to work, dine, and use the toilets at separate facilities.

Katherine Johnson, now 98-years-old, was the great exception to this rule. Five years after being hired, she became the first non-white, non-male member of the Space Task Force. This was an elite team charged with getting Americans into space before the Soviet Union. Johnson’s calculations was essential for making Alan Shepard the first American in space.

She was such a talented computer that many years later, even after machine computers had taken over, astronaut John Glenn insisted that Johnson manually check all the calculations for his journey into space.

Career Computer Girls

Despite the complex problem solving skills necessary to be a computer, for decades it was considered a low skill job, comparable to basic secretarial duties. It was thought that the difficult task was building hardware–making the machines themselves.

This was true even by the late 1960s. A 1967 article in Cosmopolitan Magazine called “Computer Girls”. Indeed, computers were referred to as girls. At the same time, a career as a computer was an unparalleled opportunity. It offered bigger paycheck than most jobs available to women, especially in the 1940s and 1950s, and it was one of the few opportunities outside of teaching in engineering and aeronautical research.

A male takeover

Since the optimism of the Cosmopolitan article, the field has increasingly become dominated by men. In 2014, only 18% of computer programmers were women–half of the 37% of women preparing for a career in computing in 1985. It started in the late 1960s when employers relied on aptitude and personality tests that favored men. In an excellent article on how Computer Geeks replaced Computer Girls,  Brenda D. Frink states that

Male computer programmers sought to increase the prestige of their field, through creating professional associations, through erecting educational requirements for programming careers, and through discouraging the hiring of women. Increasingly, computer industry ad campaigns linked women staffers to human error and inefficiency.

There is a long history of women in tech, and despite this disconcerting trend, we have to remember that women were the original computer experts!