The failure of one unnamed and ignored postwar computer worker is a good place to start. In 1959, this particular computer programmer faced a very hectic year. She needed to program, operate, and test all of the computers in a major government computing center that was doing critical work. These computers didn’t just crunch numbers or automate low-level office work—they allowed the government to fulfill its duties to British citizens. Computers were beginning to control public utilities like electricity, and the massive and growing welfare state, which included the National Health Service, required complex, calculation-dense taxation systems. Though the welfare state was created by policy, it was technology that allowed it to function.
In addition to doing all of her normal work, our programmer also had to train two new hires. These new hires didn’t have any of the required technical skills. But once she trained them, which took about a year, they stepped up into management roles. Their trainer, meanwhile, was demoted into an assistantship below them. She succeeded at her job, only to fail in her career.
That the trainer was a woman, and that her trainees were both young men, was no coincidence. Nor was it coincidental that, as a woman, she had the technical skills for a job like this while they did not. That’s because before computing became electronic, women were seen as ideal for what was considered mundane calculation work. Though this work often required advanced mathematics knowledge, it was perceived as unintellectual. Before a computer was a machine, it was a job classification—these women workers were literally called “computers.”
Marie Hicks on computers.
Long quote from a long, but worthwhile, essay on how the British computing industry died… and what that means for Silicon Valley today.