Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Ada Lovelace, Women in Math and Technology, and Walter Isaacson

"The Women Tech Forgot"???

In today's New York Times, Nick Bilton's brief piece, "The Women Tech Forgot," is inspired by the forthcoming publication of Walter Isaacson's The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. For his part, Isaacson seems to have been inspired to write his book, at least in part, by his daughter, through whom he was introduced to the English mathematician, Ada Lovelace.

Any focus on women who have been written out of history, their achievements and inventions either forgotten or credited to others, is always welcome. And the diminishing role of women in technical fields is stark. As Bilton notes:
The exclusion of these women has not only reinforced stereotypes about women and technology, but has arguably had a self-fulfilling effect. In 1985, 37 percent of computer science undergraduate degrees were earned by women. By 2010, that number had fallen by half to 18 percent. 
While Isaacson's book will include an account of Ada Lovelace, as well as making some mention of the women who worked Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) program in the mid-twentieth century, there are a couple of problems with Bilton's otherwise welcome piece. 

First, its focus on Isaacson's forthcoming book is a bit problematic--there is no available table of contents to see exactly how much of this book about "hackers," "geniuses," and "geeks" is actually about women. The cover itself is interesting and perhaps illustrative--the images feature four people, only one of them female (Lovelace).

If the purpose of Bilton's piece is to introduce readers to women's roles in science and technology, there are many terrific books out there that are actually about the role of women in science and technology, including Vivian Gornick's Women in Science: Then and Now, Julie des Jardins's The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science, and Emma Ideal and Rhiannon Meharchand's Blazing the Trail: Essays by Leading Women in Science. And that's just for starters. Autumn Stanley's Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes for a Revised History of Technology, first published in 1995, is still in print, nearly twenty years later.

(Meanwhile, even Wikipedia has extensive entries for Ada Lovelace and all of the women who worked on the ENIAC program, among them Kathleen McNulty Antonelli, Betty Jean Jennings Bartik, Adele Katz Goldstine, Betty Snyder Holberton, Marilyn Meltzer, Frances Bilas Spence, and Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum. Bartik told her own story in  Pioneer Programmer, published in 2013. And there is also an excellent new documentary telling the story of these women, The Computers, produced by the ENIAC Programmers Project.)

Again, it's hard to tell exactly how much of Isaacson's book is actually about women in science and technology, but Bilton seems to regard Isaacson's ignorance about Ada Lovelace as indicative of her "lost" status. "While some in tech may know of her," Bilton concludes, Lovelace "is far from a household name." Despite Bilton's unfamiliarity--and Isaacson's--I find it hard to believe any university student studying computer science today wouldn't have heard of Ada Lovelace--according to Bilton's own piece, Isaacson's daughter Betsy was writing her college entrance essay about Lovelace! The US Department of Defense named its computer programming language Ada in her honor--it was first released in 1980. Lovelace is a figure who appears frequently in pop culture, Ada Lovelace Day has been celebrated internationally since 2009, the Ada Initiative, founded in 2011, was named after her, and she was even honored with her own Google Doodle in 2012!

But the bigger problem--and a real howler--is the place this piece occupies in the Times. This article about "the women that tech forgot" is not included in the Technology section or the Science section or even among the book reviews. Bilton's essay about how women in science are either ignored or forgotten is printed in the Fashion and Style section--because, you know, women. Yeesh!

Isaacson's may well be an inclusive book, going far to reintegrate women into the history of "the digital revolution." But if you're interested in reading about women in science, there are many other excellent resources--and you can easily find them with a few tools produced by that digital revolution--with Google and a few clicks of your mouse.

Update: Brendan Koerner's review of Isaacson's The Innovators appears in the Sunday, 5 September NYT Book Review (BR 13). Among the "hackers, geniuses, and geeks," Korner mentions only one woman in his review, Ada Lovelace. And while his review is accompanied by a 1943 photo of ENIAC programmers Bartik and Spence, he mentions only John Mauchly and John Atanasoff's "bitter patent fight" in his discussion of Isaacson's book.

The table of contents of The Innovators is now available via Amazon. The table of contents notes Ada Lovelace in the opening and closing chapters. Under "women" in the index, there are only two entries: "as ENIAC programmers, 95-100, 117" and "math doctorates received by, 88." There is a fair amount of coverage of Grace Hopper, a pioneering computer programmer, 88-95 and 117-18, with a few additional scattered references. And Bill Gates's mom, Mary, gets a shout-out on p. 361. And so it goes . . .

By the way . . . Ada Lovelace day is coming soon--Tuesday, 14 October. You can honor the "women tech forgot" by checking out the events at the website Finding Ada