Source of book: Borrowed from the Library
This was this month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. One of the things I enjoy about this club is that I end up reading interesting books that I never would have discovered on my own. While we don’t do this every year, sometimes we join the “One Book One Bakersfield” project put on by our local library. Some years, the selections have been great, while others have been pretty meh. The fun thing is that they usually get the author to come and lecture (or, in the time of Covid, put on a virtual meeting) to discuss the book. I wasn’t able to do that, but some of our club did, and enjoyed it.
The two previous One Book One Bakersfield selections I have read are:
Fishman was nice enough to comment on my blog post.
Broad Band is the story of some of the many women who were crucial to development of computing, programming, and the internet. Some of them, such as Ada Lovelace, I already knew about, but there are many others - Grace Hopper, Dame Wendy Hall (inventer of hypertext), Jaime Levy, Radia Perlman (the protocol that made Ethernet work for large networks) - that were unfamiliar to me. In part this is because I haven’t really spent time reading about the history of computing or the internet, but also because the contributions of women - in every STEM field - get marginalized and forgotten. Women were crucial to many of the foundational ideas in computing and connectivity, but were never given the credit they deserved.
The pattern was pretty clear: women would do the “drudge” work - starting with the raw mathematical computing (see: Hidden Figures), the physical programing of the first computers, the codewriting for the first software, and so on. These were initially seen as “secretarial” work, rather than the innovative and brain-intensive activities they were. Eventually, men would realize the importance of the work, but rather than give women credit, they just forced women out of the field (often by requiring degrees women didn’t have), and made money and fame for themselves. In the most egregious cases, the women who did the work and came up with the ideas were left out of the credit, which went to the man “supervising” their work. (There is a huge pattern of this in astronomy as well - and most sciences.)
As the author notes, the fingerprints of women are all over computing and the internet - if you know where to look:
If you’re looking for women in the history of technology, look first where it makes life better, easier, more connected.
While, as the author notes, there is nothing inherently “feminine” about considering the user, our culture assumes these are feminine traits, and assigns those kind of tasks to women.
Later in the book, the author describes what brought women together for the hypertext project (which is pretty much the bedrock idea behind the Web.)
Further, hypertext was open to scholars from outside computer science departments, who emerged from such wide-ranging disciplines as interface design and sociology. What these people shared was a humanistic, user-driven approach. To them, the final product wasn’t always software: it was the effect software had on people.
It is astonishing the level of knowledge and skill that was required to work as an early programmer. It was women who were given the task of “programing” ENIAC - which meant literally connecting circuits together so the computer would solve the right problem. Mess that up, and it wouldn’t do it. And more impressively, they had to do so without a user manual. All they had was circuit diagrams. The manual for using the machine would eventually be written by the women who programmed it.
And those women? Well, they never got credit. The celebration dinner for the successful demonstration? The women weren’t invited. The War Department publicity photo? The women were literally cropped out of it. The press releases? They mentioned a few men by name, but referred to the women as a faceless “group of experts.”
Another woman who never got credit? Grace Hopper. Among other accomplishments, she literally designed the fleet-wide tactical system for our nuclear submarine fleet.
There is a lot more in the book, obviously. It is full of compelling stories, including the interviews that the author had with the more modern characters.
Note on the author: Claire Evans is a writer, obviously, but also a Grammy-nominated musician, as lead singer for YACHT, which is a quirky band, to say the least. I kind of dig her androgynous style and deep voice.
I can't resist adding this one, because they filmed it at John Day Fossil Beds.
And also, she has a science and culture blog.
Note on the book: I read the paperback edition, and absolutely HATED the font. It is modern in a weird way, with both small size AND extra white space. My eyes aren’t what the used to be for reading - aging sucks - and for some reason, this particular font gave me a headache. It isn’t just the size either, as I am reading a Franklin edition of The Magic Mountain which has small, dense print (to keep the book under 800 pages…), and I find it much easier to read. Probably because it is a classic-style font, not trendy and annoying.
I can’t seem to find out what font is used, but did see some comments that the Kindle version is better. So it’s not just me. Although I DO care about fonts...