Thursday, November 01, 2012

Turing's Cathedral, or Women Disappear

"She features significantly in computing historian George Dyson's book, Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, ISBN 978-0375422775."
From the Wikipedia article for Klara Dan von Neumann

Unfortunately, she features significantly mainly as von Neumann's wife, even though she also was "a pioneer computer programmer," as per the Wikipedia article. In fact, of the 35 women whose names are in the book's index, 24 are in the book as wives, including Klara. Klara is the only one who gets a full bio and a fair amount of ink. Much of the ink comes from her unfinished memoirs about her life as von Neumann's wife. She was also one of the primary programmers working on the ENIAC, and Dyson's book names her as one of the first three programmers, along with her husband, programming ENIAC. (p. 104). Her work, however, is described as "help," one of the ways that women's activities are diminished in importance (men "do", women "help"):
"'With the help of Klari von Neumann,' says Metropolis, 'plans were revised and completed and we undertook to implement them on the ENIAC...'" p. 194
Yet she obviously provided more than "help." In fact, she invented:
"'Your code was described and was impressive,' von Neumann wrote to Klari from Los Alamos, discussing whether a routine she had developed should be coded as software or hardwired into the machine. 'They claim now, however, that making one more, 'fixed,' function table is so little work, that they want to do it. It was decided that they will build one, with the order soldered in." (p. 195)
Of the other women mentioned, one is a secretary, the other the manager of the cafeteria. The saddest story is that of Bernetta Miller, the fifth licensed woman pilot in the US who was a demonstration pilot for an airplane company, volunteered for duty in WWI and was wounded, then became secretary to the directory of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In the Dyson book, she is mainly remembered for her memoranda about dining room accounting, and for being fired by Oppenheimer. (p. 91-92)

There are eight women, other than Klara, who are in the book in their professional positions. Three of them are mentioned in a single sentence as "computers," that is people (mainly women) who did the hard math by hand before the machine computers were up to the job. (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_computer, and I highly recommend the books by Grier in the bibliography if you wish to learn of the sophistication of methods that were developed by the "girls.")

One woman, Mina Rees, is named twice as someone who was written to:
"... Goldstine had written to Mina Rees of the Office of Naval Research." p. 147
"... 'The best change for a real undersatnding of protein chemistry lies in the x-ray diffraction field,' he wrote to Mina Rees at the Office of Naval Research." p.229
Later there is a quote from a report that states,
"... was informed by Dr. Mina Rees and Colonel Oscar Maier, representing the Office of Naval Research, and the Air Material Command, respectively..." p. 321
In themselves these quotes are not important, but this is one of the few professional women who gets mentioned in the book, and this is all that is said about her. Dr. Mina Rees was an amazing character: "She earned her doctorate in 1931 with a thesis on "Division algebras associated with an equation whose group has four generators," published in the American Journal of Mathematics, Vol 54 (Jan. 1932), 51-65. Her advisor was Leonard Dickson." (Wikipedia article) At the time of these references she was head of the Mathematics Department at the Office of Naval Research.

There are some other minor mentions, like one of Meg Ryan in a parenthetical sentence about a named location that was later used in a movie, and one woman mathematician who was named with two male mathematicians in a single sentence. These obviously are not major characters in the book, and the book is wide-ranging with everything from Aldus Huxley to George Washington, also not major characters.

The real mystery woman is Hedvig Selberg.
"'... says Atle Selberg, whose wife, Hedi was hired by von Neumann on September 29, 1950, and remained with the computer project until its termination in 1958.'" p. 152
Later we get a short bio of her: born in 1919 in Transylvania, graduated with a master's degree in mathematics at the head of her class, and was the only family member to survive Auschwitz. She came to the U.S. and was hired to work on the first computer project. She seems to have worked closely with a Martin Schwarzschild on a complex model of stellar evolution that related to the radiation effects of the bomb that was being designed. Schwarzschild went on to fame, as did Selberg's husband, a mathematician. Hedvig didn't even rate an obituary in the big newspapers (nor a Wikipedia article), although she is mentioned in her husband's obit where he first marries her, then she dies (in 1995) and he remarries.
"His first wife, Hedvig Liebermann, a researcher at the institute and Princeton's Plasma Physics Laboratory, died in 1995." (NYT Aug 17, 2007)
(Note: Mina Rees did get a NY Times obit. )

Among the other striking aspects of this treatment of women (and this book isn't by any means unusual in this respect) is that women tend not to exist until they marry a man of interest, and then suddenly they appear on the scene. Men, on the other hand, have parents and educations and often interesting stories that are told in the book, both as character building but also as bone fides. It is therefore a bit of a shock to learn in some aside that the wife has a PhD in "trans-sonic aerodynamics" as in the case with Kathleen Booth. (p. 133)

Admittedly the opportunities for women in science were very limited in the period being discussed in this book, the 1950's. However, the role of a historian is to go beyond the period's view of itself and tease out a deeper meaning from the privileged position of hind-sight. I have read other histories of computing that also failed to notice that there were women involved in the invention of this field, but this one has come out in 2012. Really, we didn't need another book on the topic written with male blinders. What a shame.

Suggested reading:
Noble, David F. The Religion of Technology : the Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. 1st ed. New York: A.A. Knopf :, 1997.
Mozans, H. J. Woman in Science; with an Introductory Chapter on Woman’s Long Struggle for Things of the Mind,. New York,: D. Appleton and company, 1913.
Toole, Betty A., and Ada King Lovelace. Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers : a Selection from the Letters of Lord Byron’s Daughter and Her Description of the First Computer. 1st ed. Mill Valley, Calif.: Strawberry Press ;, 1992.
Grier, David Alan. When Computers Were Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. Print.



14 comments:

Anonymous said...

I haven't read Grier's book, When Computers Were Human, but I recognize the theme from Jennifer Light's earlier article, though the nouns are different: "When Computers Were Women," Technology and Culture 40.3 (1999) 455-483 https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/technology_and_culture/v040/40.3light.html.

Karen Coyle said...

Thanks for this. (And sorry for the delay in posting: I have to moderate the comments or I get a bunch of spam.) I was able to find open access copies of this outside of project Muse, BTW, so for others who don't have Muse access, just Google it.

The article is interesting AND has some great citations worth following up.

Erik said...

Thanks, this is a great critique. I'm still going to read the book, but it's really sad that Dyson could be so blindered.

Karen Coyle said...

OMG, I don't know why I didn't notice this immediately: article by Jennifer Light is "When computers were *women*", book by David Grier is "When computers were *human*". Well, I guess the up side is that the logical conclusion is that women are human.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that occurred to me, too. But, as I said, I haven't read Grier's book, so I can't say whether the different term is warranted.

Karen Coyle said...

With great apologies to Mark (I will once again turn off the captcha and see if the spam becomes overwhelming, *sigh*), I am reposting this comment received in email:

Your captcha has defeated me so many times I give up on trying to comment on your recent (good!) post on women's involvement in early computer programming work and will contact you directly on the gronds that the link might be of interest. My comment was this: "I haven't looked at the photographs associated with the IAS computer project for some time (I worked there from '87-'94), but many of the group shots give you a good idea about how many women were involved. Many of the documents are being digitized under a new archival regime and are available at: http://library.ias.edu/ecp"

I'd add that one DIS-advantage Mr. Dyson would have had in compiling his work is the familiarity he no doubt had with folks like Atle Selberg and (Herman) Goldstine. These were awfully nice folks, most of them, but they didn't give a lot of thought to the contribution of the women who worked for them, or even to those administrators (not very many, I'd guess) they came in contact with.

I'll have to have a look at the book, when there's time. Thanks for reminding me of that and for the bibliography.

Best,
Mark Darby
(Archivist, Institute for Advanced Study, 1988-1994)

Liz said...

Thank you for picking out all the women and looking into who they were! I've done this kind of combing through books and anthologies and histories to find the women in the footnotes and who are mentioned as wives & then done more research to find their actual work. It would be such a great research project to try and uncover more about the early lives and careers of these mathematicians, scientists, and engineers!

Unknown said...

More of an FYI, but have you seen "Recoding Gender: Women's Changing Participation in Computing" [http://www.amazon.com/o/ASIN/0262018063?tag=betteraddons-20]? This book was published a month ago, and I've already put an order for a copy for my library.

Unknown said...

More of an FYI... have you read "Recoding Gender: Women's Changing Participation in Computing" [http://www.amazon.com/o/ASIN/0262018063?tag=betteraddons-20]? It was published last month, and I've ordered a copy for our library.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the most unfair and inaccurate "critiques" I have ever seen; I am left wondering if we even read the same book. As a woman in physics (PhD 1980s from THE West Coast institution) and amateur historian I was impressed, when I read this book, by the care Dyson took to highlight the roles (and many outside accomplishments) of the women in this story. A few examples can be found at the beginning of the book in the way Dyson describes women who appear in the list of Principal Characters, e.g.:
"Thelma Estrin - Electronic engineer, member of the IAS ECP, and wife of X..." "Bernadetta Miller: Pioneer aviatrix; administrative assistant at the IAS..." "Kathleen Booth: Computational physicist and member of X's Biomolecular Structure Group..." "Hedwig Selberg: Transylvanian born mathematics and physics teacher; wife of X..." "Verena Huber-Dyson: Swiss American logician ..." "Francoise Ulam: French American editor and journalist; wife of X..." "Marian Whitman: Economist, US presidential advisor, and daughter of X..." Hmm, do you see a pattern here? Dyson also highlights the role of Rosalind Franklin, usually unmentioned with the celebrated Crick-Watson duo, in elucidating the molecular structure of DNA. It IS true that Klari von Neumann is presented in the book as John von Neumann's helper - as she described herself, in her own words: "He (Johnny) also wanted to see how someone who had none or very little experience in the field, how such a person would take to this novel way of doing mathematics. For this experiment he needed a guinea-pig, preferably a mathematical moron and, unquestionably for this purpose the ideal subject was right there within easy reach - namely me." If Klari Dan had not married von Neumann, she surely would never had been programming computers. This blog completely ignores the book's historical accuracy and careful research, which is backed up by hundreds of listed references. I have little hope that the blog author will let my comment appear, but I hope she will at least go back, really read this great book, and reflect on whether her opinion is objective and justified.

Karen Coyle said...

... wife of ... wife of .... etc. That's my point. They each get one sentence, maybe two, but only as wives. There were women working in Los Alamos at that time who were not wives of the men in this book. There's no mention of them. At least some of the wives also did work at Los Alamos, but there's no exploration of their activities except Klari van Neumann. There may have been careful research, but when you are only looking for men as significant actors, then that's all you find.

http://www.atomicheritage.org/mediawiki/index.php/Women_at_Los_Alamos

http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/members/courses/teachers_corner/31784.html (Women scientists of Los Alamos)

Anonymous said...

So, you mean you would have preferred that Dyson had not mentioned in the list of Principal Characters- after stating FIRST what they did in their own right - that these women were the wives of (or in the case of "presidential advisor" Marina vN Whitman, the daughter of) the men there were, indeed, the wives of? No historian is going to do that. Maybe he did not go into details about women working at Los Alamos because - Gee - this is not a book about Los Alamos!

I just take issue with the complete dismissal of this excellent historical contribution because the author "could have said more" (in an already overly long book) about the women he highlights. Generalizations in your blog are simply untrue. Dyson hardly "failed to notice that there were women involved in the invention of this field." An objective read by anyone who isn't setting out to find "another book on the topic written with male blinders" - talk about having blinders on - will find a lot of women in Turing's Cathedral. Your readers should take a look at Dyson's appearance at the Computer History Museum on YouTube - going out of his way to introduce Akrevoe Emmanouilides from the audience, pointing out that his mathematician mother came to IAS before his father, and talking about Helen Dukas' influence on Einstein, this is hardly a guy who comes across as denying the contributions of women to science. After 30 years in physics, I think I can recognize those guys.

Donna Benjamin said...

Thanks for this critique of the book itself. As the author of the wikipedia article on Klari - I would really appreciate being pointed at more reference material so I can improve the article! I would also encourage others to dive in, expand it, correct errors.

The great thing about wikipedia is we can all edit it!

If anyone knows of published material on Klari we can cite - that would be a huge help!

Thanks
Donna

Donna Benjamin said...

Thanks for this critique of the book itself. As the author of the wikipedia article on Klari - I would really appreciate being pointed at more reference material so I can improve the article! I would also encourage others to dive in, expand it, correct errors.

The great thing about wikipedia is we can all edit it!

If anyone knows of published material on Klari we can cite - that would be a huge help!

Thanks
Donna