Human Computers: The Women Who Powered Early TechnologyFor centuries, the term “computer” meant a person, often a woman, performing complex calculations by hand.

By the late 19th century, these human computers became the unsung heroes of numerous scientific advancements.

Alan Turing described the “human computer” as someone who is “supposed to be following fixed rules; he has no authority to deviate from them in any detail.”

Teams of people were used to undertake long and often tedious calculations; the work was divided so that this could be done in parallel.

The same calculations were frequently performed independently by separate teams to check the correctness of the results.

human computer women profession photosAda Lovelace, an English Countess and brilliant mathematician, is hailed as the world’s first computer programmer. She foresaw the potential of machines beyond simple arithmetic, planting the seeds for modern computing.

Grace Hopper, a visionary in computer science, developed the first compiler, a tool that revolutionized programming by converting human-readable code into machine language.

Meanwhile, Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr, renowned for her beauty, co-invented a frequency-hopping technology that became the backbone of today’s Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

The story of Katherine Johnson, an African-American mathematician, is equally inspiring.

Her precise calculations were vital for the success of the U.S. space missions, including John Glenn’s orbit around the Earth and the Apollo moon landing.

human computer women profession photos

Woman wiring an early IBM computer. Photographed by Berenice Abbot.

Edward Pickering of the Harvard Observatory hired a team of women in the late 19th century, frustrated with his male assistants’ performance.

By 1880, he recognized that women could do the job as well as men and often worked for less pay or even volunteered.

These women, sometimes referred to as “Pickering’s harem” or the Harvard Computers, undertook clerical work deemed tedious by their male counterparts. Despite their lower wages, they made significant contributions to astronomy.

They cataloged around ten thousand stars, discovered the Horsehead Nebula, and developed a system to classify stars.

Among them, Annie Jump Cannon stood out, capable of classifying stars at an impressive rate of three per minute.

human computer women profession photos

Woman working on a Bombe computing device.

During World War I, Karl Pearson and his Biometrics Lab were instrumental in producing ballistics calculations for the British Ministry of Munitions.

Among his team, Beatrice Cave-Browne-Cave played a key role in calculating shell trajectories. In 1916, she left Pearson’s employ to work full-time for the Ministry.

In the United States, women computers were hired in 1918 to calculate ballistics, working in a building on the Washington Mall.

Elizabeth Webb Wilson served as the chief computer, overseeing these crucial calculations.

human computer women profession photos

Marlyn Wescoff (standing) and Ruth Lichterman reprogram the ENIAC in 1946.

In the early 1920s, George Snedecor, a professor at Iowa State College, sought to enhance the school’s science and engineering departments.

He experimented with new punch-card machines and calculators, while also collaborating with human calculators, most of whom were women.

Among them was Mary Clem, who introduced the term “zero check” to identify calculation errors.

human computer women profession photos

A group of operators working on an AT&T telephone switchboard.

In the 1940s, computing and calculating were considered “women’s work,” leading to the creation of the term “kilogirl” by a member of the Applied Mathematics Panel.

A kilogirl represented approximately a thousand hours of computing labor.

Although the media celebrated women’s contributions to the U.S. war effort during World War II, their roles were often downplayed.

human computer women profession photos

NACA High Speed Flight Station “Computer Room”, 1949.

The complexity, skill, and knowledge required for computing work were minimized, portraying these tasks as simple clerical work.

During World War II, women performed the majority of ballistics computing, a task male engineers deemed beneath their expertise.

Black women worked just as hard, often twice as hard, as their white counterparts but did so in segregated environments.

By 1943, nearly all human computers were women. One report noted, “Programming requires lots of patience, persistence, and a capacity for detail, traits that many girls have.”

In 1942, NACA acknowledged that “the engineers admit themselves that the girl computers do the work more rapidly and accurately than they could.”

human computer women profession photos

Annie, Easley, one of the first African-Americans to work at NASA.

Women played a significant role in cryptography during World War II, with many eventually operating and working on the Bombe machines despite initial resistance.

Joyce Aylard was one such operator, testing various methods to break the Enigma code.

Joan Clarke, a cryptographer, collaborated closely with her friend Alan Turing on the Enigma machine at Bletchley Park.

Despite her promotion to a higher salary grade, civil service lacked a designation for a “senior female cryptanalyst,” so she was listed as a linguist instead.

human computer women profession photos

Mary Jackson at Work NASA.

Following World War II, the NACA and later NASA recruited women as human computers.

By the 1950s, a team of female mathematicians was performing critical calculations at the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

This team included notable figures such as Annie Easley, Katherine Johnson, and Kathryn Peddrew.

At the National Bureau of Standards, Margaret R. Fox joined the technical staff of the Electronic Computer Laboratory in 1951.

In 1956, Gladys West was hired by the U.S. Naval Weapons Laboratory as a human computer. Her work was instrumental in the calculations that eventually led to the development of GPS technology.

human computer women profession photos

Melba Roy (pictured in 1964) headed the group of NASA mathematicians, known as computers who track the Echo satellites.

At Convair Aircraft Corporation, Joyce Currie Little was among the original programmers analyzing data from wind tunnels.

She used punch cards on an IBM 650, which was located in a different building from the wind tunnel.

To expedite the delivery of the punch cards, she and her colleague, Maggie DeCaro, used roller skates to travel between buildings more quickly.

Milly Koss, who had worked with Grace Hopper at UNIVAC, joined Control Data Corporation (CDC) in 1965. There, she developed algorithms for graphics, including methods for graphic storage and retrieval.

human computer women profession photosBetween 1961 and 1963, Margaret Hamilton began studying software reliability while working on the US SAGE air defense system.

In 1965, she was responsible for programming the onboard flight software for the Apollo mission computers.

Once Hamilton completed the program, the code was sent to Raytheon, where “expert seamstresses” known as the “Little Old Ladies” hardwired the code by threading copper wire through magnetic rings.

human computer women profession photos

Using an NCR 796-201 cathode-ray terminal, circa 1972.

Each system could store more than 12,000 words, represented by the intricate patterns of copper wires.

By the end of the 1960s, the demographics of programmers shifted from predominantly women, as seen before the 1940s.

Although women made up 30 to 50 percent of computer programmers during the 1960s, they rarely advanced to leadership roles and were paid significantly less than their male counterparts.

An article titled “The Computer Girls,” published in the April 1967 issue of Cosmopolitan, highlighted women’s contributions to programming.

human computer women profession photos

NACA human computers – Supersonic Pressure Tunnel staff in 1950s.

In the early 1970s, Pam Hardt-English led a team to create a computer network named Resource One, which was part of a group called Project One.

Her vision to connect Bay Area bookstores, libraries, and Project One was an early prototype of the Internet.

human computer women profession photos

NACA computer working with microscope and calculator, 1954.

To support the project, Hardt-English secured an expensive SDS-940 computer as a donation from TransAmerica Leasing Corporation in April 1972.

In 1981, Deborah Washington Brown became the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in computer science from Harvard University, which at the time was part of the applied mathematics program.

Her thesis was titled “The Solution of Difference Equations Describing Array Manipulation in Program Loops.”

Shortly after, in 1982, Marsha R. Williams became the second African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in computer science.

human computer women profession photos

Computers for the Explorer 1 trajectory.

Susan Kare, sometimes referred to as the “Betsy Ross of the personal computer” by the New York Times, collaborated with Steve Jobs to design the original icons for the Macintosh.

Her creations, including the moving watch, paintbrush, and trash can icons, significantly contributed to the Mac’s user-friendly interface.

Kare worked for Apple until the mid-1980s before moving on to design icons for Windows 3.0.

human computer women profession photos

Women working as “computers” at NACA in 1949 gather air pressure readings.

By the 1990s, the field of computing was predominantly male.

The proportion of female computer science graduates peaked around 37 percent in 1984 but then steadily declined.

human computer women profession photos

Mathematician Katherine Johnson’s calculations helped NASA achieve manned spaceflight. Johnson, pictured in 1962, is one of the “human computers” portrayed in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures.

Although the end of the 20th century saw a rise in women scientists and engineers, this trend did not extend to computing, which stagnated.

Nevertheless, women were instrumental in hypertext and hypermedia projects during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

At Brown University, a team of women, including Nicole Yankelovich and Karen Catlin, developed Intermedia and invented the anchor link.

Apple partially funded their project and integrated their concepts into Apple operating systems.

human computer women profession photos

“Human computer” Doris Baron, pictured in 1955, works with tape from machines measuring air pressure.

While computing began as a field heavily dominated by women, this changed in Western countries shortly after World War II.

In the United States, recognizing that software development was a significant expense, companies sought to hire the “ideal programmer.”

Psychologists William Cannon and Dallis Perry were tasked with developing an aptitude test for programmers.

From an industry where more than 50% of the workforce were women, they selected 1,400 people for their study, 1,200 of whom were male.

This study was highly influential and is said to have “trained the industry” in hiring practices, emphasizing introverts and men.

human computer women profession photos

Margaret Hamilton in 1969, standing next to listings of the software she and her MIT team produced for the Apollo project.

In Britain, following the war, women programmers were often selected for redundancy and forced into retirement, leading to the country’s decline as a leader in computer science by 1974

Popular theories about the lack of women in computer science often overlook historical and social circumstances.

In 1992, John Gray’s “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” posited that men and women think differently, leading to different approaches to technology and computing.

human computer women profession photos

PFC Patricia Barbeau operates a tape-drive on the IBM 729 at Camp Smith.

A significant issue is that women often find themselves working in environments that are largely unpleasant, prompting many to leave these careers.

Moreover, when a computer science class has few women, these women can feel isolated and singled out, leading to feelings of non-belonging and, ultimately, their departure from the field.

human computer women profession photos

Shelley Lake working on computer graphics at Digital Productions, 1983.

human computer women profession photos

Harvard Computers at work, circa 1890.

(Photo credit: RHP / Wikimedia Commons / NASA).